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The last five to ten years have seen many big developments impacting Scotland’s tertiary education system. Some positive changes have included:

National initiatives around enterprise and skills.

New modes of delivery including graduate apprenticeships and online learning.

Greater cross-over between college and university pathways.

However, the tertiary sector also finds itself facing increasingly complex and unprecedented challenges ranging from:

  • Increasing marketisation and competition between education providers.
  • The changing demographic of the student body.
  • Brexit and its impact on funding, free movement, and other factors.
  • Internationalisation.
  • Debates about the allocation of public funding to different areas of tertiary education, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These factors have yet to prove positive or negative but they are undeniably occurring at a time of growing pressure on staff time and shrinking resources within institutions.

It is certain that tertiary education will continue to evolve and transform over the next few decades, with implications for learners, the economy and society alike.

Disruptions such as Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as more long-term trends like the ongoing digital revolution, mean this change will not always be steady nor predictable. Tertiary education will need to become resourceful and agile in the face of these forces, continuing to provide a key service while also contributing to the solutions that society needs to thrive.

The RSE’s independence and convening power are uniquely placed to facilitate frank, cross-disciplinary dialogue to inform public policy and address complex societal problems.

This project, therefore, aims to:

Stimulate wide-reaching and informed debate about tertiary education futures by bringing in a wide range of views and perspectives.

Provide opportunities for practitioners, students and the wider public to join the conversation and share their experiences, ideas and ambitions for the future of tertiary education in Scotland.


Student-centredness will become a defining feature in the future of tertiary education.

The project’s final report builds on the investigative roundtables informed by sectoral views. It aims to stimulate continued creative thinking about how post-school education might evolve over the next few decades and what this means for learners and society. The project captured lived experiences as well as reflections on more general concepts such as collaboration in the sector or shared values in the tertiary system. The findings are intended to serve as a starter for further dialogue. By initiating a forward-looking conversation, cotland can ensure it is well-placed to nurture a system that delivers for all learners, in all instances, whilst also empowering staff and society at large.

Download Tertiary Educations Futures report 2023 (1.54MB, PDF)

Key findings

Learners will come from increasingly divergent backgrounds – including a rise in returners displaced from the job market by decarbonisation or automation.

Fostering a culture of collaboration will
require system-wide changes such as
funding reforms.

Taking a value-based approach to the topic of competition between institutions could help to reduce barriers to a more integrated system.

Learners understandably want to futureproof
their education as far as possible and may look to alternatives if tertiary providers fail to modernise.

Adaptable and behaviour-centred meta-skills such as innovative thinking and emotional intelligence will become increasingly vital

Community learning and partnerships have an essential role in learning and providing accessible, local lifelong learning opportunities.

We must continue to look beyond our borders at the evolving role tertiary education can play in different parts of the world and how this can enrich our understanding.

Further technological transformation is inevitable and the tertiary sector must ensure it is on the front foot in order to capitalise on its opportunities without disenfranchising staff.


With new technology, leadership styles, and access to education, where does that leave the future of higher education?
Join us in exploring the changing world of higher education. Address challenges and envision a more inclusive global education future.


With a focus on facilitating dialogue and debate, the project is centred on a series of discussions with staff, students, employers and the wider public which look to capture their experiences, ideas and ambitions for the future of tertiary education in Scotland. These discussions will ground our findings in real-world evidence and invite new and important voices to the table who have traditionally been underrepresented in conversations about tertiary education.


To start, the project invited current learners from over 12 different universities and colleges from across Scotland to share their perspectives on tertiary education and what they would like to see from the sector.

Read the roundtable report

Participants included representatives from:

  • City of Glasgow College
  • Dumfries and Galloway College
  • Edinburgh College
  • Edinburgh Napier University
  • Glasgow Caledonian University
  • New College Lanarkshire
  • Queen Margaret University
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Glasgow
  • University of St Andrews
  • University of Stirling
  • University of the West of Scotland


Building on the approach to our first discussion, we asked a variety of university and college staff about their views on the purpose, role, and value of tertiary education and where they see things headed.

Read the roundtable report

Participants included:

  • Lecturers and teaching staff
  • Student support staff
  • Technical roles
  • Management


Recognising that tertiary education extends far beyond the umbrella of universities and colleges, this discussion sought to better understand the boundaries of tertiary education and how alternative providers cater to the diverse and varying educational needs of Scotland’s learners.

Read the roundtable report

Participants included representatives from:

  • Scottish Prison Service
  • Military education
  • Adult learning
  • Skills agencies
  • Industry apprenticeships and training
  • Leisure learning
Research Re-Boot (Covid-19 Impact) Research Grant awardees networking


Greater collaboration will be a crucial element in building the more flexible, learning-centred tertiary system that society needs. These roundtables explored collaboration across the tertiary education landscape and with industry, looking at how these relationships may change in the future.

Read the roundtable report

Participants included representatives from:

  • Universities
  • Colleges
  • Local authorities
  • Widening access initiatives
  • Integrated academic-industry partnerships
  • Sectoral interest groups
  • Funding agencies
  • Multinational businesses
  • Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs)
  • Innovation centres


We are publishing resources from a range of contributors offering their insights on the current tertiary landscape as well as its future direction of travel.

We embark on an exploration of the multifaceted relationship between the tertiary education system and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Digital skills and technologies offer immense opportunities that continue to shape our society, careers, and daily lives. How do we upskill our workforce to meet new challenges?
Degrees, and indeed all forms of tertiary education, are evaluated by the extent to which they lead to jobs. British Prime
In a rapidly changing world with shifting societal values, AI, and complex global challenges, the need for ethical leadership transcends traditional boundaries and extends beyond research and education.
Everyone should have access to higher education. Dr Neil Speirs advocates a ‘pedagogy of hope’ for empowering students, addressing classism, and fostering inclusivity.
Let’s talk about the future of tertiary education.
Scotland leads the way in promoting a tertiary education system. What do we need in securing a prosperous future for learners & society?
Professor Victoria L. O’Donnell explores the growth and challenges of online universities, emphasizing the need to redefine perceptions and value of online degrees amidst a competitive and evolving educational landscape.
Alexa Green reflects on their transition within higher education and shares her thoughts on the future of tertiary education.
Covid-19 has disrupted Higher Education models and practices, exacerbating the challenges which the sector already faced. 
Colin Graham reflects on provocations encouraging a systemic view of education and curricula that looks outwards beyond tertiary education
Professor Maria Dornelas FRSE, held a workshop asking what is the purpose and future of Higher Education (HE)?
Audrey Cumberford writes about why Scotland is well placed to capitalise on its strengths and make effective university-college collaboration the norm.
Jim King writes about the challenges of offering meaningful education opportunities within the prison system and why we should prioritise interventions that are creative, engaging, and relevant to the individual’s life and aspirations.
Dr James Mahon discusses the importance of relevant and industry-driven career-long professional learning (CLPL) to tertiary instructors.
Aileen Ponton, Chief Executive of the SCQF writes on how they are keeping pace with Scottish Education in the 21st Century.
Carl Gombrich writes about the benefits of problem-based learning and how it could benefit future approaches to education.
Jen Ross writes about digital futures for learning and how our perceptions have been influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Paul Hagan and Rob Wallen write about college-university collaboration.
Gordon Flockhart writes about alternative pathways into engineering.

Additional information

Our project has been informed by related pieces of work in the tertiary education space, including RSE and YAS’ own contributions to key inquiries such as:

Additionally, the Young Academy of Scotland has held several conversations about the future of higher education in Scotland and beyond.

Read about these on the Young Academy website