The Technician Commitment: its emergence, enactment and impact

Vere, Kelly (2022) The Technician Commitment: its emergence, enactment and impact. EdD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Technicians, who are often referred to as an ‘invisible workforce’, are key to research and teaching in universities. Given that a thriving technical workforce is critical to achieving the UK government’s post-Brexit ambitions for research and development, including making Britain a science superpower, the UK higher education sector needs improved knowledge and insight of its technical workforce.

Historically, roles have been ill-defined and technicians’ contributions to the sector have not been well understood. Furthermore, an aging technical workforce means that large numbers of highly-skilled technicians are retiring every year with insufficient attention being paid to attracting a new generation of technicians to the sector. Consequently, recent reports have highlighted a shortage of technicians across all sectors in the UK.

This thesis arises from a sustained programme of research, advocacy and national change leadership in support of the technician workforce in universities. In particular, the thesis explores the emergence, enactment and impact of a sector-wide intervention to improve the culture and environment for technicians working in UK higher education and research – the ‘Technician Commitment’. The Commitment was introduced and widely adopted in 2017 with the aims of enhancing visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability for technicians, technologists and skills specialists working in higher education and research. It was hoped that this in turn would help to improve recruitment and retention of younger technicians. I was centrally involved in the genesis, development and launch of this initiative and this thesis offers unique insights into how such initiatives work, reflects on the advantages and disadvantages of being an insider researcher, and considers the challenges of aligning research and practice.

This study syntheses the literatures on technicians working in higher education. It begins with an analysis of literatures that examine technician roles in the history of science, proceeding to the developments in universities through the late 20th century, and then to current trends in an ever changing higher education landscape. The review explores both the international and national literatures on technicians working in higher education and the recent wider sector focus on improving research cultures.

An important contribution of the thesis is an autoethnographic exploration of the events and experiences that led to the emergence of the Technician Commitment. This account draws on years of personal records, reflective journals and research notebooks maintained through my doctoral journal, which itself coincided with the timeframe of the Commitment. The remainder of the research design is based on a series of in-depth semi-structured interviews in seven institutions implementing the Commitment, selected because of their different starting points, position in the sector and approach to implementation. The interviews explore the lived experiences of the Technician Commitment leads who are quite differently positioned, supported and empowered in their organisations.

The thesis examines the positioning of technicians within universities prior to the introduction of the Technician Commitment and explores the institutional motivations for engagement. The research explores the initial impact of the Commitment and analyses how various enabling factors and practices have led to some positive change for the technical community. My professional and scholarly work is rooted in pragmatist ontological traditions that do not align strongly with a particular philosophical tradition and understanding of reality. Therefore my approach to this research analysis is inspired by the principles of grounded theory, in particular constructivist grounded theory (CGT).

The thesis culminates in a novel conceptual framework for understanding the implementation of the Commitment. This framework resonates with theory of change models that have becoming increasingly common in the design and evaluation of large scale organisational and system change over recent years. Although the Technician Commitment intervention was not designed on the basis of a theory of change, I have come to understand that this approach is particularly relevant and so use my conceptual framework to develop a logic model.

The thesis concludes by identifying issues for future research and policymaking, and also draws parallels between the Technician Commitment and other UK higher education sector initiatives that are attempting to drive positive change, such as the UK Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers and the Athena Swan and Race Equality Charters. I consider how the analytical framework could be used more widely to explain how institutions experience and enact such sector wide concordats, charters and commitments, and to demonstrate some of the key drivers and enablers for influencing change in higher education institutions.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (EdD)
Supervisors: Noyes, Andrew
Keywords: Technicians Research Culture Technician Commitment Laboratory Technicians Support Staff
Subjects: L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher education
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > School of Education
Item ID: 71770
Depositing User: Vere, Kelly
Date Deposited: 01 Nov 2023 13:56
Last Modified: 01 Nov 2023 13:56

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