The development of ‘design thinking’ in higher education
: an institutional analysis at the intersection of professionalism, management, and policy.

  • Graeme Wise

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Social Science (DSocSci)


This study investigates the development of ‘design thinking’ within professional and managerial practices of higher education programme design, and the extent to which pressures from the policy environment influence or condition programme design practices. Design thinking concepts have grown in importance in the study of organisations and policy systems in which they are novel and unestablished. In recent years there have been trends indicating greater application of these concepts in higher education settings, albeit to a limited extent. The study tests theories drawn from the higher education management and design management domains, adopting a theoretical framework concerned with instituted practice, fields of action, and institutional logics. Empirical investigation was conducted through case study of the English higher education system with a principal period of interest between 2017 and early 2020, examining four university sub-cases. The four universities were selected to control for factors of both similarity and difference, enabling comparisons to be made. Within each university, semi-structured interviews were undertaken with a range of actors classified in three role types, allowing a range of perspectives to be analysed: senior managers, programme developers, and lead support staff. Across the four universities a total of twenty-two interviews were conducted, with participation obtained through a purposive, snowball sampling approach. The study finds that ‘design thinking’ has developed in some higher education settings, modifying but not displacing established practices. The modes by which it develops can be classified as ‘systematic’ or ‘enabled’, which have different institutional characteristics. Policy pressures on programme design generally appear to have only weak effects, but there are exceptions. A key finding is that the policy foundations of the established quality assurance regime have weakened, which has promoted programme innovation. Amendments to theory are offered, and possible future directions for ‘design thinking’ in higher education are discussed.
Date of Award21 Jan 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorKevin J Doogan (Supervisor) & Alex D Marsh (Supervisor)

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