Seeking Compassion in the Measured University

Generosity, Collegiality and Competition in Academic Practice


  • Martha Caddell Edinburgh Napier University
  • Kimberly Wilder



academic practice, collegiality, excellence, resistance, compassion


In the context of league tables, national student surveys and increasing competition for students and resources, measurement and comparison is an ever-present – and ever more significant – aspect of contemporary academic life. Institutional definitions of prestige and success intertwine with individuals’ sense of value, career-progression and everyday work activity in varying ways, from active championing of particular dominant visions of ‘excellence’ through to varying forms of resistance, both passive and active. Faced with such challenges, increasing attention is being given to where academics find support, value and motivation in their working lives. This paper explores academics’ narratives of the relationship and practices that shape their career decisions and frame their academic practice, highlighting the everyday pressures that squeeze space for compassionate collegiality. 

The paper draws on narrative interviews that explored how academics experienced kindness and collegiality as they transition through their careers, examining detailed personal narratives of 23 academics based at Scottish universities. Participants shared their CVs and three artefacts (pictures, objects, or events) that were significant to their career journey. The resulting narratives offer detailed insight into how participants negotiate institutional pressures and frame relations with colleagues in order to create meaning, value and (degrees of) ‘happiness’ in their work. 

The paper argues that while there is recognition of the impact of universities’ strive for ‘excellence’ on staff interactions and work priorities, this is largely de-politicised in institutional contexts, with attention given to personal resilience, finding work-life balance, and individuals developing soft-skills to manage everyday interactions. The more socially-oriented concept of ‘compassion’ offers a fresh perspective from which to explore the everyday interactions within the university and consider the practical and political steps required to create supportive work environments.

Author Biographies

Martha Caddell, Edinburgh Napier University

Martha Caddell is Associate Professor in Learning & Teaching Enhancement at Edinburgh Napier University. Her academic background is in the anthropology of education, with a focus on schooling and higher education in the context of political conflict and change. Martha is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Twitter @Martha_Caddell

Kimberly Wilder

Kimberly Wilder is a doctoral researcher in Learning & Teaching Enhancement at Edinburgh Napier University. Her research focuses on how Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy can help foster student engagement with feedback as a learning tool; how to support a programme focused approach to feedback, and what it means to navigate the notion of an ‘academic identity’. Kim is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.


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