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Supporting collaboration in rationalising an area of study

Izabel Soliman
School of Education Studies
University of New England
The development of units/subjects in an area of study in higher education is often a piecemeal process which can result in the proliferation of units as staff members develop new units independently, to reflect their academic interests. Eventually, there may be a realization that there are overlaps, and deficiencies among the units, leading to dissatisfaction among academic staff and students. In addition there may be pressure on academics to reduce unit offerings as a part of economic rationalisation. This paper describes an alternative to economic rationalisation, namely, academic rationalisation, which involves academic staff working collaboratively to develop or redevelop unit offerings. This approach has been attempted at the University of New England, in relation to the research methods units offered in the Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies. It is argued that support is required for effective academic rationalisation and for collaboration.


"Most issues that presently confront higher education, whether in relation to the system as a whole or to individual universities or to academics working within the institutions, stem from funding problems" (Karmel, 2000, p. 159). Karmel's observation certainly applies to the pressure felt by academics in Australian universities to deal with decreased funding. This often takes the form of reducing unit (subject) offerings and areas of study when these are no longer perceived by central management to be economically viable. This is known as 'economic rationalisation'.

This paper is concerned with change through supporting what I have called 'academic rationalisation', which seeks to address the unplanned growth of units in an area of study, through a collaborative strategy. A proliferation of academic units is usually linked to the interests of the academic staff. In this paper collaborative academic rationalisation is proposed as a response to this problem, leading to a more effective, better integrated set of units in an area of study. Experience at the University of New England (UNE) is drawn upon where a Faculty has begun the process of academic rationalisation. The paper is also about supporting and maintaining the integrity of academic work and of academics exercising greater collective control over their professional work.

Challenge of rationalising units of study

Narrowing the range of offerings by eliminating units is one of the common strategies used in economic rationalisation. The usual response to a top-down request for economic rationalisation is to form a committee of academics to produce recommendations for eliminating units perceived to be economically unviable. This process can be a daunting task for the committee as the criteria for deciding which units will be eliminated are often crude and may be counter productive in the long term. The process is often highly political with those staff members on the committee who possess higher status, who have continuing appointments, who dominate meetings and wield more power, imposing their preferences on less advantageously positioned colleagues who fear redundancy or threat of job loss. Thus the process may be perceived as highly threatening to those staff members who are probationary or temporary appointments if their continuation depends on student enrolments in these units. It may also be threatening to those who have been teaching a unit for many years and feel a strong sense of ownership from which they derive their academic identity. For all these reasons, rationalisation is a complex and sensitive issue.

The focus of academic rationalisation is wider than 'market demand' or the numbers of students enrolled in units. It attempts to address the issue of the unplanned growth of units in a more collaborative and rational way by the academic staff involved. It is a bottom-up process of change, managed by academic staff.

The UNE experience

Unit development as a piecemeal process

At the UNE, the historical development of research methods units in the Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies (FEHPS) has been highly individual and piecemeal. This has occurred in a Faculty of 80 academic staff members, created in 1989 from the amalgamation of staff from the previous Faculty of Education at UNE and the Armidale College of Advanced Education. Prior to amalgamation the Faculty had one research methods unit. With amalgamation, there was soon an expansion of units as Faculty members perceived inadequacies in the generic unit which was once thought to deal with content fundamental to all areas of educational research.

Over the years, academics located in the Faculty's four schools have independently developed research methods units for postgraduate awards, offered in different context areas: educational administration, adult education, curriculum studies, educational studies, professional studies (for personnel in the army, police, civil care and security) and studies in health. Because of the diversity of staff backgrounds and interests, and differences in their methodological orientations (which new staff members did not see adequately reflected in the existing units), and because of the changing needs of students, many new units were continuously developed.

By 1999, there were more than 15 units in this area. In response to this proliferation, a partially successful effort was recently made to compel all education students enrolled in a research Master's degree program to take only two specific research methods units offered by a specific school. This strategy has not, however, been perceived as a satisfactory solution by all staff and students.

Examination of the tables of contents of the study guides for these units and of their prescribed texts, indicates overlap and repetition among the many units offered. Staff members teaching the units in the various schools do not communicate with each other when redeveloping old units or when developing new ones. There is little collaboration across or within schools in unit development and little exploration of how units could be combined or integrated, or whether generic core modules could be developed which could be adapted to the different contexts. Also the development of units is not generally team-based, which would provide for easier entry for new staff members interested in the teaching of research methods. Some areas of research expertise in the Faculty are not harnessed or effectively used. Two previous attempts at rationalising were not successful in spite of a lot of effort, time and work expended by the committees. With increasing pressure from the University for the reduction of units and awards within the Faculty and for a more efficient use of academic staff, the current Dean established a working party instructed to consult within the Faculty, to rationalise the teaching of research methods units, to articulate the content of research approaches and methodologies across the various awards, from Bachelors through to Doctorates, and to establish opportunities for teams to teach both within a discipline or field and across the Faculty.

Unit rationalisation as a planned process

As the chairperson of the working party, I proposed a staged rationalisation process, with a focus on collaborative curriculum development rather than a review of all the existing units, which would have been very time-consuming and confrontational. (As a participant in the two previous attempts at rationalisation, I had found this to be the case, as the committee members struggled to protect their units.) Accordingly, it was decided to first survey the members of the Faculty on their perceptions of what should be included in research methods units, in order to establish a framework for the subsequent stage of the redevelopment of research methods units. The Faculty survey included the following questions:
  1. What should count as research training?

  2. What should count as a research methods unit?

  3. What principles should guide the development of research methods units?

  4. What approaches, theoretical perspectives, conceptual frameworks, methodologies, methods and techniques should be included in the Faculty units?

  5. What principles might guide the possible articulation/sequencing of units across the Faculty?

  6. What are the research training/education needs of undergraduate and higher degree students across the Faculty?

  7. What are the particular research training needs of the students you teach and supervise?

  8. How can we draw upon the research expertise of staff who currently do not teach research methods units?

  9. How can we bring together staff members with similar research approaches for fruitful dialogue and team teaching?
Responses to the survey were sought, via email, from all staff, not only those who were already teaching research methods units. Detailed responses were obtained from 22 (27.5%) interested staff members. These were analysed, integrated and summarised, and the results (Soliman, 1999) returned electronically to all members of the Faculty for review and additional comments. These comments were also integrated with the previous responses.

After this process of feedback and input from the academic staff, a draft model of only eight units was proposed, consisting of introductory, intermediate and advanced research methods units, which would be available for students at the Bachelor's, Graduate Diploma, Master's and Professional Doctorate levels. This model was also sent to the members of the Faculty for final comment. Based on the further input, the model was fine-tuned (Appendix 1) and constituted a framework for the subsequent development of a coherent set of units. The responses to the survey were also the basis for a set of recommendations (Appendix 2) which were developed to guide the subsequent stages of collaborative unit development.

It was anticipated that with further collaboration and Faculty support, a reduced and integrated set of units appropriate for students enrolled in the Faculty's schools could be developed for the awards offered in the three context areas of Education, Health and Professional Studies. The working party's task ended at this stage with a report to the Dean. Subsequently the Dean called for expressions of interest from academic staff for participating in the development of units.

Support for collaborative unit development

The stage of collaborative unit development has not progressed as anticipated. One of the reasons for the lack of progress has been a lack of support for the work involved. As Toohey observes, "Pressure creates the need for change, but support makes the change possible" (1999, p. 189). The working party's task of surveying academic staff, analysing the data, organising the feedback process and drafting the recommendations was a time-consuming process over a semester and was not included in the workloads of the working party members.

The next stage of development of a coherent sequence of units for the Faculty's various target groups, would require further collaboration and time which would need to be factored into the workloads of the academic staff involved. As a number of recent surveys have shown (NTEU, 1999; McInnis, 2000) academic staff work more than 50 hours a week and experience greater stress, diffusion and fragmentation of tasks than ever before, and greater job dissatisfaction. The task of collaborative unit development would have to occur on top of the current workloads, i.e. teaching the units in question, research, professional activities and service. Given the tasks involved in curriculum development, it cannot be just an "add-on" to existing workloads if high quality units are to be produced. (See Soliman & Soliman (1997) on the implications of workload and quality.)

To appreciate the need for support it is necessary to understand the work involved in collaborative unit development. There are many possible ways to proceed as suggested by the literature on unit and course design and unit and course review (e.g. Toohey, 1999; Conrad and Wilson, 1985). In the case of UNE, the process could begin with the establishment of a Forum, which could bring together all academic staff already providing research methods, and those interested in doing so. Such a structure for facilitating interaction in discussion and deliberation is needed, as the trend at UNE has been for academic staff to work in isolation. Support, in the form of a convener of the Forum's activities, would be needed, who could be the chairperson of the Faculty's research committee or a staff member experienced in research and research supervision. The convener could facilitate people working together by scheduling meeting times (an always difficult task), helping to form small unit development teams by liaising with unit co-ordinators, and setting timelines and deadlines for completing tasks. The Forum would provide opportunity among the group for the discussion of problems concerning the development of units, their content, sequence and their relationship. It could also facilitate bench marking and the internal review of units by the relevant unit co-ordinators.

Bench marking (Smeal et al. 1996) could involve academic staff in collecting information on "best practice" nationally and internationally, in regard to the teaching of research methods, for the purpose of comparison and for identification of changes needed to better align unit content and teaching methods with "best practice". Support in the form of research assistance would be appropriate for this task. The unit co-ordinators could review the content of their units, their relevance for particular target groups, their objectives and anticipated learning outcomes, their conceptual frameworks and structures, their teaching methods, mode of delivery, resource materials, their assessment tasks, students' perceptions of their quality, strengths and weaknesses, and their accreditation by professional bodies.

The documentation of such reviews could be the basis for communication among the Forum members and for the formation of collaborative unit design teams, as common interests are identified and possibilities of combining units or of restructuring them for a more efficient use of human and material resources are considered. This may be the first occasion that some members of academic staff will read information on the units of their colleagues. The collection, reproduction and the distribution of this documentation would need to be facilitated by administrative support.

Collaboration in unit design is a challenging task because of different philosophical positions, different values, tacit beliefs and different ideologies about the nature of knowledge, teaching and learning. Curriculum scholars describe many dimensions and theoretical orientations to curriculum (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery and Taubman, 1995). Toohey (1999 p. 48) describes five different orientations which she has identified in college and university courses, namely, traditional or the discipline based; performance or systems-based; cognitive development based; personal relevance/experience oriented; and socially critical oriented.

Such differences would need to be articulated and their implications understood and deliberated by unit co-ordinators. Toohey (1999, pp. 48-49) suggests that deliberation of the following questions is fundamental to unit design:

I will also add to this list the question of the implications of on-line teaching. Engaging in such deliberation and development involves time and effort. This process may need to be supported by release time from teaching, or funding the cost of employing an educational developer for the production of resource materials, or for conducting staff development workshops to develop new ways of conceptualising teaching.

Support for the development of a collaborative culture

Support and leadership for the development of a culture of collaboration is also needed. There has been a large volume of literature on collaboration in an educational context (e.g. Hargreaves, 1993; Wehlage and White, 1995; Wasser and Bresler, 1996; Aspland, Macpherson, Proudford and Whitmore, 1996; Telford 1996; Stokes and Tyler, 1997) too large to review here, but I would like to highlight some of the pertinent findings on the characteristics of a collaborative culture and of successful collaboration.

The characteristics of a collaborative culture include:

Successful collaboration Accordingly, support for the development of a collaborative culture in a university context requires a certain type of leadership. The so-called 'transformational' leadership, where collaboration is a critical dimension, may be the most appropriate. Transformational leadership could change the existing compartmentalised and competitive organisational culture into one where members of the Faculty pursue "shared beliefs, through their combined efforts, overriding their individual interests for the common good" (Burns 1978 in Telford 1996, p. 12), and share responsibility for identifying problems and their solutions. This is achieved in part by leadership being sensitive to professional and personal needs of staff. The development of "leadership density" (Telford, 1996) is also a contributing factor, whereby leadership is broadly based as individuals become empowered to take on the role of leaders wherever their academic function lies.


Collaborative academic rationalisation, directed by academics themselves, could be applicable to any area of study. It has been argued that the process should be open and participatory. The example of the open strategy implemented at UNE for rationalising the teaching of research methods units, indicates the various forms of support needed for the success of this approach. I have argued that support is needed for collaborative curriculum development and for the development of collaborative organisational culture in which it can flourish. Such a collaborative culture can be developed and sustained by transformational leadership which "centres around workgroups of committed professionals who, with shared and directed purpose, have the capacity to work together in a problem-solving way... [and] to take action on the basis of what they have discovered" (Telford 1996, p. 13).


Aspland, T., Machperson, I., Proudford, C., & Whitmore, L. 1996, Critical Collaborative Action Reseach as a Means of Curriculum Enquiry and Empowerment, Educational Action Research, 4:1, pp.93-104.

Conrad, C.F. & Wilson, R.F. 1985, Academic Program Review, Institutional Approaches, Expectations and Controversies, ASHE-ERIC, Higher Education Report No. 5, Association for the Study of Higher Education, Washington.

Fullan, M. 1993, Change Forces: Probing the Depths of Educational Reform, Falmer Press, London.

Hargreaves, A. 1993, Collaboration: A key to leadership for quality education, The Practicing Administrator, 15: 3, pp. 16-18.

McInnis, C, 2000, The Work Roles of Academics in Australian Universities, University of Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

Karmel, P. 2000, Funding Universities, in Coady, T. (Ed.) Why Universities Matter, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

NTEU, 1999, Workloads Survey, A Progress Report.

Pinar, W.F., Reynolds, W. M., Slattery, P., & Taubman, P.M. 1995, Understanding Curriculum, Peter Lang Publishers, New York.

Smeal, G., Weeks, P., Gilbert, C. & Hodgson, S. 1996, Benchmarking "best practice": the induction of new academic staff, Research and Development in Higher Education, Vol. 19, pp. 808-811.

Soliman, I. 1999, Rationalisation of Research Methods Units in the Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies, University of New England, Armidale.

Soliman, I. & Soliman, H. 1997, Academic Workload and Quality, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 22:2, pp. 135-157.

Stokes, H. & Tyler, D. 1997, Rethinking Inter-Agency Collaboration and Young People, Youth Research Centre, The University of Melbourne.

Telford, H. 1996, Transforming Schools Through Collaborative Leadership, The Falmer Press, London.

Toohey, S. 1999, Designing Courses for Higher Education, The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press, Buckingham.

Wasser, J.D. & Bresler, L. 1996, Working in the Interpretive Zone: Conceptualising Collaboration in Qualitative Research Teams, Educational Researcher, 25: 5, pp. 5-15.

Wehlage, G. & White, J. 1995, Community Collaboration: If it is such a good idea, why its it so hard to do? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 17:1, pp. 23-38.

Appendix 1: Proposed general model

Research Methods Level
  • Introduction to Research
  • Contemporary Research Methodologies
  • Qualitative Research Methodologies
  • Quantitative Research Methodologies
  • Research Project
  • Issues in Research in Education and Training**
  • Issues in Research in Health
  • Issues in Research in Professional Studies
* Credit points are not decided at this stage as units could be 6cp or multiples depending on their scope.
** This area currently reflects the largest number of awards and students in the Faculty.

Appendix 2: Recommendations for collaborative unit development in the research methods area of study

  1. Goals

    Research methods units within the Faculty will

  2. Context

    The number and content of research methods units provided

  3. Structure

    The developers of new units will

  4. Unit Development

    The process of unit development will involve

  5. Support

    The development of new units for implementation

Author: Izabel Soliman, PhD, University of New England
Phone (02) 6773 3158 Fax (02) 6773 3350 Email:

Please cite as: Soliman, I. (2001). Supporting collaboration in rationalising an area of study. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 662-671. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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