The idea of ‘third space’ in the higher education context was first introduced by Celia Whitchurch in 2012, describing the existence of a space in which a staff member’s day-to-day work activities go beyond the traditional academic and professional portfolio boundaries and where the blending of identities takes place. The term has evolved a lot since then. Third space roles have emerged as a deeper concept which foster versatile, incongruent and contrasting features when working in academia. In 2023, Whitchurch’s thinking around this topic advanced, suggesting that academic and professional roles, rather than being a single entity, are likely to be plural, participating in multiple and diverse spaces, which may require reconfiguration and unique support mechanisms.
What differentiates third spaces from the other types of teams and in general, is that third spaces are purposely set up to allow both professional and academic staff in higher education to work shoulder-to-shoulder for mutual gains. For instance, to support and advocate the improvement of teacher practice and academic development, including the design, delivery and evaluation of student learning or the spearheading of curriculum and program offerings.
In the last ten years, as the higher education context constantly changes, practices under the umbrella of ‘third space’ have advanced a lot, covertly bringing positive changes in terms of overall student-staff experiences, fostering meaningful relationships, enhancing partnerships and collaborations in pedagogical practices while accommodating for resource limitations. However, the contributions of third space practitioners are yet to be acknowledged, their challenges to be highlighted and their voices to be heard.
To introduce and foster discussions around acknowledging third space workers and their leaders, and which will lead to change, Hains-Wesson & Rahman in March, 2023 wrote a feature article, which described third space ecosystems in higher education as key to learning and teaching achievement, However, they also emphasized that without appropriate leadership and acknowledgement, third space workers will continue to be viewed as an anomaly without appropriate advocation, mentoring and career trajectory.
In other words, third space staff and their leaders exist in a space that is located in the in-between, straddling academic, professional and research goals, pursuits and achievements. Therefore, higher education management need to show a concerted effort and an authentic display of trust between and across third space members and leaders, including acknowledging and supporting their diverse responsibilities and career needs.
However, as mentioned earlier, those who choose to enter third spaces as employees and leaders are neither recognised nor are they deeply supported in their career desires, aspirations or trajectories, including promotion. Not only do their roles not fit typical academic and professional staff job descriptions, but they also need to continually justify what they do, why it is important and are often measured by metrics that do not align to their disciplinary domain nor norms.
Such an ecosystem creates doubts from both ends. On one hand, university leadership might not be able to value and appreciate the multifaceted and innovative work that third space staff undertake. This could be due to a surface understanding around third space entities and identities. On the other hand, third space staff often feel frustrated and drained from being continually overlooked, unacknowledged and not having an established or known presence, resulting in a voicelessness in policy making and leadership hierarchy presence and input.
Given the importance of trust in higher education (Felten et al., 2023) for teacher-student and student-student relationships, we believe it is also the right time to begin addressing and advocating trust in third space work, leadership styles and to better support career trajectory through truthful conversations. This needs to occur between, amongst and across third spaces in higher education.
For one, there is little information around third space work, examples of leadership frameworks and models to follow. There is even less about how to ensure trust building within third space occurs and amongst leadership across the higher education context. Simon and Pleschová (2021) define trust as “a psychological state [of a person] …who is willing to accept vulnerability to another individual” (p. 3), which is based on positive behaviour and intentions. There is much research on which behaviours increase trust between employees and employers, such as purposeful activities (Jones & George, 1998; Mayer et al., 1995) that are morally based and consistent. However, there is less known about how one actually instigates such trust in third space environments.
It has also been found that when higher education staff believe they have positive working relationships with their managers they will remain engaged even when complex situations such as increased workloads occur (Barkhuizen et al., 2014). However, others like Kenny (2015) state that no matter the complexity of the work arrangements, when staff are not recognised and supported they will be less engaged. These findings suggest that not only acknowledgement, support and effective management are needed to increase staff engagement but also that leadership should assert the importance of trust between and amongst a third space team, leading to increased work engagement. This in turn, will result in high-quality relationships, collaborations with management and positive trustful connections within and across the organisation (Byrne & MacDonagh, 2017; Waddington, 2018).
With this in mind, we advocate for the effective leadership in third spaces, and by appropriately qualified, experienced, and knowledgeable third space leaders who authentically incorporate kind and compassionate ways to advocate and support third space colleagues. This would include purposeful and sustained high levels of trust, where both third space staff and their corresponding leaders are provided with the time and resources to reflect on and actively improve practice, while being recognised by others as possessing legitimate roles in higher education.
Without bespoke and tailored support structures, adequate leadership positions in third spaces, career trajectory support and relevant reward mechanisms to support third space works, staff will continue to serially avoid such career pathways and/or disengage. Further, if trust and kindness is not practised amongst and between the staff regardless of their positions in third spaces, how would trust and kindness be integrated and authenticated in the pedagogical practices, overall institutional values and relationship building for our students, which is why higher education exists in the first place.
Barkhuizen, N., Rothmann, S. and Van de Vijver, F.J.R. (2014). Burnout and work engagement of academics in higher education institutions: Effects of dispositional optimism. Stress and Health, 30(4), 322-332.
Byrne, O., & MacDonagh, J. (2017). What’s love got to do with it? Employee engagement amongst higher education workers. Irish Journal of Management, 36(3), 189-205.
Felten, Peter, Rachel Forsyth, and Kathryn A. Sutherland. (2023). Building Trust in the Classroom: A Conceptual Model for Teachers, Scholars, and Academic Developers in Higher Education.
Hains-Wesson, R., & Rahman, N. (2023). “Why are leaders making decisions to disrupt third spaces in higher education teaching and learning?” Campus Morning Mail.
Jones, Gareth R., and Jennifer M. George. (1998). The Experience and Evolution of Trust: Implications for Cooperation and Teamwork. Academy of Management Review 23 (3): 531–46.
Kenny, A. (2015). Study on Work-Related Stress: Experience of Academics in the Institute of Technology Sector 2014. DIT Level3, Issue 13, June 2015.
Mayer, Roger C., James H. Davis, and F. David Schoorman. (1995). An Integrative Model of organizational Trust. The Academy of Management Review 20 (3): 709–34. https://doi.org/10.2307/258792.
Simon, Eszter, and Gabriela Pleschová. (2021). PhD Students, Significant Others, and Pedagogical Conversations. The Importance of Trusting Relationships for Academic Development. International Journal for Academic Development 26 (3): 279–91. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2021.1949324.
Waddington, K. (2018). Developing Compassionate Academic Leadership: The Practice of Kindness. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 6(3), 87-89.
Whitchurch, C. (2012). Reconstructing identities in higher education: The rise of ‘third space’professionals. Routledge.
Whitchurch, C. (2023 forthcoming). “Academic and professional identities in higher education: From ‘working in third space’ to ‘third space professionals’” Research Handbook on Academic Labour Markets, Ed. Glenda Strachan. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Rachael Hains-Wesson is associate professor in work-integrated learning at the University of Sydney
Nira Rahman is a lecturer in educational design and student engagement at the University of Melbourne