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The discursive construction of Human Learning Systems (HLS) in leadership and public services reform (Advert Reference: RDF22/BL/EIS/GADELSHINA)

   Faculty of Business and Law

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  Dr Gyuzel Gadelshina, Prof Rob Wilson  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The public sector and the wider public service sector in the UK has seen decades of churn and failed policy implementation resulting in a fragmented landscape. New Public Management approaches, based on principles of marketization, management and measurement, are increasingly understood to be part of the problem rather than the solution to these long-standing attempts at the reform of public services (see for instance Lowe and Wilson 2017, Pell et al 2016, Pell et al. 2020). In a challenge to the orthodoxy of NPM the Human Learning Systems (HLS) approach has been generated through a partnership between Northumbria University, Collaborate CIC and Centre for Public Impact and is a rapidly emerging international collaboration with a distinctive managerial logic and growing community of practice (Lowe et al 2021).

When considering whether HLS could be a sustainable future public and non-profit management practice, the architects of this approach claim that HLS ‘appears to have provided a language for expressing shared, but often unseen and unheralded, practices.’ The PhD would seek to explore how these practices are discursively mobilised by its’ proponents and the means by which HLS has provided a language for expressing these new practices, what this shared language is, and to what extent these discourses change strategic institutional practices, inspire wider systemic reform of the public service or, in other words, ‘lead to action’.

The PhD will primarily draw from the literature on the academic practices of institutional work: understood in terms of agency and practices aimed at creating, maintaining, disrupting and sustaining institutions, institutional leadership and institutional change. HLS will be treated as a live case study of a new explicit change process, involving a multitude of actors/stakeholders to explore the specific discursive nature of HLS to understand the ‘HLS effect’. The study will draw on an already significant corpus of widely available secondary data (including presentations, weblogs, tweets, reports and case studies) generated with HLS case study partners and the wider membership of the Human Learning Systems collaborative. Comparison of other cases of service reform approaches in public sector (e.g. the Vanguard method) and primary data collection through observations, interviews and surveys of stakeholders are also a possibility. The candidate will be embedded in a number of institutional and faculty-based research networks who will support and inform the work along with the supervision team, thus offering a fully supportive environment for completion and maximising the impact from the study. The PhD particularly aligns to the Human and Digital MDRT (the supervisory team includes a co-leader the theme), the Public Innovation part of the InCITE Research Centre and the faculty of BLs Public Policy and Public Management (3PM) and Complexity and Learning RIGs. 

The aim of the study will be to explore the ‘effect’ through institutional discourse analysis. The candidate will focus on communicative discourses of the HLS ‘world’ including the case study partner organisations for the two years before and two years after the launch of the latest HLS report in March 2021. The study will seek to identify how and where the new shared language of HLS is used, who is using it, and to what extent the new language is inspiring wider public sector leadership and reform. The outcome of the study will be insight and knowledge which will guide the current and future development of public reform and policy implementation approaches including the role of the digital sphere. The work will also contribute to the theory and debates on discursive institutionalism.

This project is supervised by Dr Gyuzel Gadelshina.

Eligibility and How to Apply:

Please note eligibility requirement:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere or if they have previously been awarded a PhD.

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see

Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. RDF22/BL/EIS/GADELSHINA) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: 18 February 2022

Start Date: 1 October 2022

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Funding Notes

Each studentship supports a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2021/22 full-time study this is £15,609 per year) and full tuition fees. UK and international (including EU) candidates may apply.
Studentships are available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £9,365 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities.
Please also read the full funding notes which include advice for international and part-time applicants.


Mueller, F., Whittle, A., Gadelshina, G. 2019 The discursive construction of authenticity: The case of Jeremy Corbyn. Discourse, Context and Media.
Iszatt-White, M, Whittle, A, Gadelshina, G & Mueller, F. 2019, 'The ‘Corbyn Phenomenon’: Media Representations of Authentic Leadership and the Discourse of Ethics Versus Effectiveness', Journal of Business Ethics, 159, 2, 535-549
Lowe, T., French, M., Hawkins, M., Hesselgreaves, H. & Wilson, R., 2021 Responding to complexity in public services—the human learning systems approach Public Money and Management 41, 7, 573-576.
Lowe, T., Kimmitt, J., Wilson, R., Martin, M., Gibbon, J. 2019 The institutional work of creating and implementing social impact bonds, Policy and Politics 47, 2, 353-370.
Lowe, T & Wilson, R 2017, 'Playing the Game of Outcomes-based Performance Management. Is Gamesmanship Inevitable? Evidence from Theory and Practice', Social Policy and Administration, 51, 7, 981-1001.
Pell, C (ed.), Wilson, R (ed.), Lowe, T. (ed), 2016 Kittens are Evil: Little Heresies in Public Policy, Axminster, Devon, UK: Triarchy Press.
Pell, C. (ed.), Wilson, R. (ed.), Lowe, T. (ed.) & Myers, J. 2020 Kittens are Evil II: Little Heresies in Public Policy, (ed.), Axminster, Devon, UK: Triarchy Press.
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