Year

2012

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of Management & Marketing

Abstract

This thesis investigates the attempted implementation of the Research Quality Framework (RQF) policy in the Australian higher education sector. With the RQF the Australian Federal Government aimed to introduce a national research quality assessment exercise to Australian universities that at a later stage was to inform selective, performance based funding of university research. In particular the study focuses on the impact of the discourse of the early development and implementation phase of the policy on the occupational identities of academics affected by the RQF. At the centre of the investigation is an exploration of the responses of academics to the policy - how they expected it to change their workplace. The study also addresses how the RQF attempted to reconstruct academic identities at macro (government policy), meso (organisational), and micro (individual) levels of discourse, and how identity (re)-constructions at these different levels relate to each other.

The thesis uses a case study approach that investigates academics in different career stages and from different disciplines at a regional Australian university. The approach is grounded in established qualitative research methods involving the coding of textual data through several readings, combined with more recent methods of discourse analysis based on Positioning Theory. The fieldwork consists of data collection through in-depth semi-structured interviews with academics as well as managerial and administrative staff of the university. Furthermore, additional data for analysis is provided through documents such as internal reports, emails, newsletters, government publications, public media, and academic journal publications among others.

The findings of the study draw a complex picture of academic identity in the context of significant organisational change within universities. The evidence suggests that many academics committed to the change and showed signs of adaptation and the development of new identities that are more compatible with their changing environment. However, there is also evidence for strong traditional academic identities which show few indications of adaptation and little attitudinal or behavioural change as a result of the RQF policy. The findings indicate that career stage and affiliation with specific academic disciplines may play significant roles in how individual academic identities are affected by change. Findings also show that the implementation of research quality assessment is not viewed as an isolated event within the academic community. Rather the RQF is found to be embedded in a complex network of storylines and unresolved issues in higher education that predate research quality assessment. Furthermore, the findings show that discourse across the macro, meso, and micro level of analysis has an important role in identity construction as positions, both within and between levels, inform each other and through positioning and counter-positioning identity constructions are negotiated.

These findings have a number of important implications for the field of organisational studies, the management of organisational change, and the implementation and conduct of research quality assessment exercises. The approach taken in this study demonstrates how discourse analysis based on Positioning Theory can provide an important tool for analysing and managing organisational change. The study shows how planned changes may have unexpected and varied effects on occupational identities, generating resistance and disengagement which in turn threaten the successful implementation of change. Future research assessment exercises should take into account how high levels of unproductive stress and anxiety among academics may be reduced through complementary support mechanisms and guidance for academics during transition periods as well as the development of policies and assessment systems that emphasise support for academic integrity and valued professional identities rather than external motivators of incentives and punishments.

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