Changing Identities in Higher Education: Voicing Perspectives

Editor(s) Ron Barnett, Roberto Di Napoli
Publisher Routledge
Published 2008
Pages 226
Price £75.00
ISBN 9780415426053
Reviewed by Dr Deborah Lee
Nottingham Trent University
Review published 16 July 2008

This edited collection takes as its starting point the changes in the higher education sector in Britain over the last few decades, how they have shaken 'established academic identities and senses of self' (p.5) and how 'new kinds of academic identity [have] emerged' (p.5). The book brings together academics, managers, educational developers and students to give their perspectives on identities in contemporary higher education.

The text is ordered into three main sections - Part I, which offers reflections on professional identities; Part II, which provides responses to Part I; and Part III, which focuses upon student identities.

In Part I, Peter Taylor draws upon studies from Finland, Australia and the UK to note the sense of loss experienced by many contemporary academics; Denise Batchelor ponders whether the student voice has been lost; Gunnar Handal talks of the academic developer as 'critical friend'; and Celia Whitchurch explores the identities of administrators and managers.

The editors make clear that they: 'have sought to produce a book in which identities are not only discussed in conventional research and scholarly idioms but in which these reflections also come alive through the personal narratives of some of the authors' (p.7). Some of the analysis in Part I was, I felt, too densely theoretical - and chapters did 'come alive' more beyond this material.

Handal's chapter in Part I is particularly interesting as it focuses upon a group not often highlighted in analyses of higher education - academic developers. Defining academic developers as 'actively and purposefully engaged in contributing to change - change of aspects of the academic culture and the practice of academics within it' (p.56), Handal feels that they may influence the identities of academics.

In Part II, Robert Burgess, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, offers a clear overview of change in the higher education sector over the last 40 years; Laura Miller focuses upon 'performing academic identities in shifting contexts' (p.104); Lynn McAlpine, Marian Jazvac-Martek and Allison Gonsalves explore identities and voice; Gerard Delanty looks at academic identities; Ray Land focuses upon academic developers; and Victor M. H. Borden ponders professional associations.

Reference back to Part I in Part II did not always work for the contributors: it sometimes felt rather laboured. Nonetheless, interesting points are made throughout Part II. Gerard Delanty's chapter is particularly of note. He says that academics feel loss and dissatisfaction, but comments that: 'the reality today is a world in which more opportunities exist for academics. ...most academics in permanent research and teaching contracts have considerable control over their work' (p.128).

In Part III we hear from students, as 'in the course of this project...we came to be sensitive to the absence of student voices, as we had originally scoped the volume' (p.7). While not all voices can be included in any book (the editors also note that:

suggestions were made, too, about including also the voices of other professional groups like educational technologists, librarians and so on. No doubt that would have made our project more complete. However, eventually, editorial considerations about the structure and length of the book discouraged us from pursuing such an aim, worthwhile as it would doubtless be' [p.8]),

I think it is regrettable that students were an afterthought. I also felt that while Susan Lapworth's analysis of taking the sort of qualification that is new to the sector - an MBA in Higher Education Management - was topical; the second chapter in the section, by Alison Ahearn, Oliver Broadbent, John Collins and Eirini Spentza, was problematic in that while Broadbent, Collins and Spentza are students and offered their reflections on student identities, the chapter was introduced and the material analysed by an academic - Ahearn teaches at the students' University (Imperial College): I felt that it would have been better for the students to have worked together to give their own meanings to their collective accounts.

Nonetheless, Ahearn's final comments that: 'it is apparent from these pieces that the students see a modern university education as part of a life process rather than a commodity' (p.183-4) and that: '[the students] are alive to the added value of a university education and are protective of it, wishing to shape it for others and protect it from being reduced to a mere commodity' (p.184) are very important to highlight at a time when universities often do see students as consumers. For they send a message that not all students wish to understand themselves and their academic endeavours in such a way.

Overall, this is a thought-provoking academic book: a particular strength is that it draws in a diverse range of voices and identities. In addition to being useful to higher education researchers, the book will also appeal to those teaching education and sociology courses in the area of higher education, and it will be relevant to academic and professional services staff taking professional qualifications in higher education.