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Self-care and entrepreneurism: An ethnography of soft skills development for higher education staff

Despite the ubiquity of staff soft skills programmes, few studies have examined why and how academic and corporate services staff utilise these programmes for self-care/governance. This study reports on findings from an ethnography of soft skills learning and development programmes (LDPs) in a UK university, focusing on interviews with programme participants and facilitators. Results suggest that, as social worlds with neoliberal directives, LDPs promote various self-governance activities in the form of entrepreneurism and novel, corporate versions of self-care. Time on LDPs was seen as a chance to, ‘put oneself first’, examine career options and cultivate sought-after attributes, including self-confidence and assertiveness. Social networking and performance management also emerged as significant issues. Career development was important for all participants; however, perceptions of how to realise this differed. Based on our findings, we propose three types of work-related performance – ‘career nomad’, ‘reluctant entrepreneur’, and ‘course hopper’ – constituting a typology for understanding social worlds inhabited by contemporary university professionals. Our study suggests that self-care ‘technologies’ have multiple, competing functions in continuing professional education. While LDPs can help professionals navigate paths through increasingly challenging organisations, their entrepreneurial ethos and content reflect the market interests they serve.