Connecting and bridging – the Third Space privilege

Landscape photo of the three Forth bridges with Queensferry Crossing bridge in the front

Photo: By Sam Sills – Forth bridges, Looking south, May 2021

At a recent TELedvisors event (@TELedvisors) there were thought-provoking presentations by Diane Nutt (@dixxyD) and Emily McIntosh (@emilythemac) on the concept of integrated practise, and how it can enable positive change.

What do we mean by integrated practise? There are many different names for the type of roles involved, and the field of work is often referred to as the ‘third-space’ (Whitchurch, 2008). The roles are as individual as the people who hold them, however they are often a mixture of academic and professional services activities, with the balance between these varying. Sometimes these roles are based within a discipline, sometimes within a central unit – there are advantages and disadvantages of either location.

As part of the seminar, held to celebrate and examine McIntosh and Nutt’s new edited volume The Impact of the Integrated Practitioner in Higher Education, we were put into discussion groups. I was fortunate to be in a group with Nikki Jenkins (Curtin Uni), Michael Sankey (Charles Darwin Uni) and another colleague from WA. We were asked to consider what had changed in this area during the pandemic, and how could we use that to work collaboratively. Our group discussion led us to the idea that the third space could be an area of privilege, and I would like to explore this further in this blog.

Transversing the established order

One suggestion was the way in which third-space professionals (or whichever term makes most sense to you for these roles) move between different parts of the university community. One definition is that “working in The Third Space involves traversals across the threshold of the established order, challenging and subverting existing practices and hierarchies” (Hawley, McDougall, Potter and Wilkinson, 2019), which suggests a value in moving across spaces, boundaries, and groups. You will notice I used a picture of the three Forth bridges from near Edinburgh for my blog post, I like the idea of us acting as bridges, and connecting disparate groups.

As we work with different people in different disciplines, or even just across one discipline, we bring with us a host of experiences which we can utilise as different lenses to view the current activity. We can also bring an institutional knowledge of what has worked elsewhere, and what didn’t work – and more importantly, why it didn’t work. Possibly most importantly, we bring an ability to ‘translate’ – many of the issues in universities arise from a lack of understanding about the concerns, and priorities, of different groups. Our third-space position often gives us an ability to take an external perspective, and figuratively step back from the heat of a debate. This can help to focus thinking, and provide a framework for other specialist colleagues in the disciplines to use to support teaching, learning and research activities.

I would also argue that the huge range of paths which third space professionals have taken in their careers give us a comfort with flexibility, and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances. Many have come from backgrounds outside higher education, and bring different perspectives. All of these attributes are key to our ability to work in environments which are prone to rapid change, yet also tied to rigid procedures.

The pace of change in universities can seem glacial, I would suggest that it is more similar to a tsunami – if you recognise the signs, you know something is about to happen, but it is very hard to prepare.

This is even more so for our colleagues in the academic schools who are keeping pace with changes in their discipline as well as trying to adapt to new policies and strategies.

The value of our work

New initiatives are a constant factor in universities, and they don’t always come with additional funding, or systems which are suitable for them. The third-space expert, with our flexibility, our willingness to listen, and our ability to see solutions, is indeed a valuable part of ensuring universities remain places of academic excellence.

Gaining promotion in the third space can be challenging – our expertise requires very specific skills and attributes which do not fit easily into standard university systems. I would like to see us stand up and proudly claim the credit we deserve. By doing this we not only raise the profile of our roles, we will also articulate what is valuable about our work

About the author:

Book cover image
Integrated Practitioner book cover

Dr Donna Murray is Head of Taught Student Development in the Institute for Academic Development at The University of Edinburgh, and leads the team that provides support to the University’s 39,000 undergraduates and taught postgraduates.

Donna is also the author of the chapter “What Do Blended/Integrated Practitioners Do? Insights into ways of working strategically and influencing policy and practice” in The Impact of the Integrated Practitioner in Higher Education; Studies in Third-Space Professionalism (2022), edited by McIntosh and Nutt.

More information at the book’s page on the publisher’s site (Routledge). Donna is on Twitter @Donna2618


Hawley, S., McDougall, J., Potter, J. & Wilkinson, P. (2019). “Students as partners in Third Spaces”, Special section editorial,  International Journal for Students as Partners, 3(1), pp. 1-4. [Available ]

Whitchurch, C. (2008). Shifting identities and blurring boundaries: the emergence of Third Space professionals in UK higher education. Higher Education Quarterly, 62 (4), pp. 377–396. [Available ]


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