Tertiary Education Futures: What is Higher Education For?


Maria Dornelas, Reader, School of Biology, University of St Andrews

Young Academy of Scotland Member
September 2020


The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) and YAS are working together on a project to capture a wide range of views about the future of Tertiary Education in Scotland. Our discussions will feed directly into the RSE’s post-Covid-19 Commission


As part of this project, in May YAS hosted a discussion on the topic of the purpose and future of Higher Education (HE), which was attended by over 80 people representing 14 Universities.

The first goal of our workshop was to focus on the question “What is Higher Education for?”.

Word cloud with 'learning' in the middle

Throughout the discussion a major theme emerged, coalescing around one word: learning. The act of learning involves both the creation of knowledge and sharing of that knowledge, and critical thinking is a fundamental skill in both facets of learning. The discussions highlighted the intrinsic value of education, above and beyond obtaining qualifications, and the value of learning as a collective and co-operative process. Several common goods arise from the act of learning, including social mobility, the ability to innovate, and resilience in the face of challenges. In adapting to the changing landscape, it is important not to lose sight of the overarching purpose of HE and of the wider contributions that it makes to society as a result.

We also discussed the challenges currently facing HE practitioners, which may affect their performance as catalysts of learning. The marketisation of HE, bureaucratic governance structures with heavy administrative tasks and excessive focus on metrics and rankings, threats on academic freedom, concerns about job security and work-life balance are the main issues that emerged in our consultation. Investing in the future of HE in Scotland will be most successful if it reduces these threats to a productive and creative sector.

The discussion ended on a more positive note, by focusing on the opportunities for innovation afforded by the current upheaval of the sector. Here, enhanced cooperation was highlighted as the way forward. As boundaries become blurred by the move online it becomes possible to share approaches across disciplines, institutions and even across national borders. Rather than just translating classic approaches to the online format, technology also opens new opportunities that have the potential to enhance student experience and improve learning. This transition also opens opportunities for new approaches to research and wider knowledge-exchange between researchers and the wider public.

This event was followed by a second event on Curricula that benefit society. You will be able to read about that event here soon.

If you would like to contribute to our discussions on the future of tertiary education, you can submit your thoughts using the contact form here.