Rebalancing Tertiary Education Curricula – a Systemic Approach


Colin Graham

Senior Honorary Professorial Fellow, University of Edinburgh

On the 21st of August, the Young Academy of Scotland held the second in a series of online debates, contributing to a joint RSE/YAS project on Tertiary Education Futures. This debate discussed future curricula, with a view particularly to how they might benefit society. Colin Graham, one of our regular participants, reflects on two of the provocations put forward by our panel of speakers: ‘learning to do work of value to others’ (Carl Gombrich, Director of Teaching and Learning at the London Interdisciplinary School) and ‘students as active agents of change for providing curriculum solutions that benefit society’ (Aishwarya Tiku, Vice-President Education of the Student Association of the University of the West of Scotland). From different perspectives, these provocations appear to be broadly related in their intentions and encourage a systemic view of education and curricula that looks outwards beyond the bounds of tertiary education and takes fuller account of learner pathways and aspirations.

This sits in the context of Young Academy of Scotland’s broader work around the future of Higher Education (HE). We believe that a global society that is both more educated than any other in history and saturated with data and information creates an opportunity to align research and teaching with the grand challenges we face as a world. This event focused on how curricula can address this opportunity.

Tertiary education and employment

The broad aims of education are economic, social, cultural and personal. Historically, these aims – and the curricula that support them – have been largely framed in economic terms, meeting the needs of workplace, workforce and employers. The rapid increase in technological and scientific innovation over recent decades has fundamentally shifted the nature of employment, with a rise in high-skilled professional and technical jobs, while automation and globalisation of business, manufacture and markets have left many in its wake. The proportion of young people in tertiary education has risen towards 50% of 18-30 year-olds in the UK. How can our education system now adapt to meet these competing aims and challenges?

In order to secure graduate-level jobs, graduates increasingly need to show they have additional attributes beyond their subject (discipline) knowledge and understanding. The majority of vacancies no longer require graduates from a specific discipline. Jobs have become project-driven and problem-driven rather than subject-driven. An overwhelming 82% of employers said in 2017 that the degree subjects of job candidates did not matter (1). This has now risen to 86% (2). Subject-specific knowledge is no longer the primary determinant of suitability in most graduate recruitment (3). What now matters are transferable skills and attributes, breadth of knowledge and experience, and the interdisciplinary and problem-solving capacities that students develop throughout their tertiary education. Carl describes the connection between undergraduate degrees and graduate employment as ‘broken’ (2).

There is now a strong case for rebalancing tertiary education curricula between specialist disciplinary degrees and broader, interdisciplinary and problem-driven degrees. Recent research around interdisciplinary learning (IDL) development in HE indicates that there is still little truly interdisciplinary learning being delivered and very few genuinely interdisciplinary degrees on offer (4). Carl Gombrich’s teaching at UCL (BASc degree) and the new London Interdisciplinary School (5) (where degree curricula will be problem-led) set a new direction for our tertiary education system. A case study of the reform of HE curricula and structures at Hong Kong University (6) provides a good indication of the scale and nature of the challenge that awaits.

The impact of tertiary education on school curricula

Through its curricula and admissions processes, the tertiary education sector exerts a major constraint on school curricula and qualifications. Dr Janet Brown (formerly Chief Executive of SQA) commented on this at the RSE’s IDL Conference in 2019 (7): “Looking at how we encourage IDL in a subject dominated environment, the education system needs to collectively consider what it wants to deliver, how it will be measured and the way it fits with higher education entry requirements.” The tertiary education sector should acknowledge this constraint and address its consequences. This will require a truly systemic approach. The future development of tertiary education should not be conceived independently of secondary education.

Although Scotland’s National, Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications have undergone extensive ‘reform’ over the past decade, they remain fundamentally disciplinary in nature. Education Scotland’s recent thought-paper on Learner Pathways (8), created at consultant-led workshops that captures the input of around 30-40 senior teachers and educators, delivers a radical critique of our current subject-dominated system of qualifications and its lack of ‘equity’ and interdisciplinarity. It questions the purposes of high-stakes national examinations and offers a vision for the reform of our education curricula to meet the needs of young learners in the 21st century. The Royal Society’s 2019 conference and report on Post-16 Education (9) addresses similar issues and reaches broadly similar conclusions.

Students as agents for change: community service learning (CSL)

Tertiary education should promote a culture that includes the provision of rich opportunities for students to learn to do work of value to others (for example through an element of community service learning), both during their studies and in their subsequent lives and careers. Students increasingly recognise this and seek out such opportunities, whether these be within their curricula (for credit) or as extra-curricular service. Students may use their ‘para-professional’ skills and knowledge to contribute to (for example) widening access programmes within their communities. CSL enables graduates to evidence additional attributes beyond their subject (discipline) knowledge and understanding. So I strongly support Aishwarya’s provocation that students should be active agents for change that will benefit society.

Since 2006, the University of Edinburgh has been developing and delivering optional for-credit outreach and engagement courses in which senior undergraduates (as “para-professionals” in their subjects) work in collaboration with schools and communities to co-create and deliver subject- or problem-related learning resources. This is a form of CSL in which students develop graduate attributes and capacities, become self-directed learners, and are imbued with civic responsibility. Students work closely with community partners (‘clients’) and develop skills in outreach and knowledge exchange, enhancing their employability. This model has proved very successful and is being more widely adopted. Many co-created resources have been made available online on TES Resources by the University’s Open Education Resources group (, and have been downloaded over 28,000 times in the year to July 2020, particularly during Covid lockdown. The combination of direct engagement and the creation of online resources and support is a powerful one. There is not yet a widespread recognition in HE of the wider value of creative for-credit CSL work rather than – or in addition to – further advanced academic studies. There are nonetheless many other well-established and successful CSL programmes operating across Scotland’s tertiary education sector; opportunities for sharing and showcasing best practice would be very welcome.

Young people entering, within and emerging from our education system are – and will continue to be – disproportionately impacted by the Covid pandemic. They are likely to have changed mind-sets and priorities with regard to tertiary education. Covid represents an important opportunity for deep and systemic reflection and reform, and in particular for listening to what young people themselves see as priorities for future curricula development.


The Young Academy of Scotland is interested in seeing how secondary and tertiary education can begin to reflect broader social changes. We have adopted a series of our own Grand Challenges, and are seeking ways in which we can make knowledge useful to address these challenges. As part of this project, YAS members have been engaging with people and organisations involved in Tertiary Education and participating in events such Creative Bravery Festival where possibilities for co-production of curricula that is inclusive and interdisciplinary have been proposed. For more information about the Tertiary Education project and other projects of the Young Academy of Scotland visit our website –

(1) Annual Survey 2017 Report; Key trends and issues in student recruitment 2016-2017. Institute of Student Employers
(2) Carl Gombrich (2020) University Evolution.
(3) Harvey, L (2000) New Realities: The relationship between higher education and employment. Tertiary Education and Management 6:1, 3-17
(4) RSE Advice Paper (2020) Embedding Interdisciplinary Learning in Scottish Schools
(5) London Interdisciplinary School.
(6) University of Edinburgh, Institute for Academic Development, Learning and Teaching Conference 2018, presentation by Professor Amy Tsui (Hong Kong University)
(7) RSE Interdisciplinary Learning Conference outcomes and outputs (2019)
(8) Education Scotland (2020) Learner pathways: A key to successful curriculum design.
(9) Royal Society, Post-16 education conference report (2019)