From collaboration to dynamic, sustainable and smart eco-systems

Tertiary Education Futures
Publication Date
Professor Ellen Hazelkorn

Promoting Tertiary Education Systems [1]

Scotland has long and distinguished history promoting a tertiary education system. It is one of the go-to nations for others, such as Ireland, when looking at what we can learn from the Scottish approach. The Scottish Funding Council, established in 2005, was one of the first such agencies which brought together further and higher education. In this respect, it succeeded the Tertiary Education Commission established in New Zealand following extensive policy discussion led by the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission beginning in 2000.

Today, the idea of establishing a tertiary approach has gained traction in many countries. As the OECD noted,

the more common term was higher education, but tertiary education was adopted…to reflect the growing diversity of institutions and programmes. [2]

The Welsh government is currently establishing the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research following the 2016 report, Towards 2030: A framework for building a world-class post-compulsory education system for Wales [3]. In 2022, the Irish Government announced the decision to create a Unified Tertiary System for Learning, Skills and Knowledge in which, irrespective of where learners enter further or higher education or their research career, they should be in a single system which responds to individual talents, ambitions, and motivations and responds to middle and high-level skills needs. [4] Reviews are also taking place in Australia, Portugal, Norway, and the Netherlands – all reviewing how well their “systems”, which have evolved over centuries, meet the requirements of the 21st century.

The New Zealand experience is especially insightful. Under the auspices of the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission four reports were published during 2000-2001.  It defined tertiary in its broadest sense declaring that in a knowledge society “no easy distinctions can be drawn between the value of domains of knowledge” and correspondingly ascribed differences between institutions. [5] Hence, New Zealand adopted the view that tertiary education included all forms of learning, formal, informal and non-formal – polytechnics, universities, colleges of education and wananga), programmes provided by private and government training establishments, business-based education, industry training, and all lifelong learning beyond the compulsory school system. [6]

Maximising collaboration and cooperation was another core principle. The idea of breaking down rigid and static boundaries between different types of institutions is another policy shift. Promoting a more flexible and porous system does not mean creating a homogeneous one – where every institution is doing the same thing. Mission diversity remains an important objective. Rather, the aim is to champion the value and contribution that different institutions bring to society and to their region in much the same way that the concept of biodiversity describes the rich variation of life forms wherein each species plays a critical role, mutually supporting each other, without which the entire system may collapse. [7]

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Meeting current and future challenges

The pandemic illustrated the extent to which we are not immune from issues arising in other parts of the world while climate change shows, conversely, how global issues bring significant local effects, e.g. global warming with knock-on effects for food, health, water and the eco-system. It also illustrated how working collaboratively and sharing (scientific) information accelerated the search for a vaccine and other therapies. This is the essential message of the SDGs.

Collaboration is often spoken about in the context of bilateral agreements between further and higher education, learning pathways, co-created educational programmes, research programmes and/or shared infrastructure.  Terms such as networks or associations are used to describe different models of co-operation between educational institutions at home and internationally. But today’s societal challenges, as illustrated by this summer’s alarming weather patterns, bring greater urgency to the necessity for deeper and more sustainable collaboration. This requires both a whole-of-tertiary-education and a whole-of-society approach – as promoted by the Scottish Funding Council [8] and the Tertiary Education Futures report. [9]

First, it is time to embrace the idea of a tertiary education eco-system. The eco-system encapsulates the entire post-secondary landscape as one in which different types of education, training, and research and industrial actors interact with each other in formal, informal, and non-formal arrangements which are mutually and societally beneficial and interdependent (open/hidden). The ecosystem is a dynamic space wherein the number, type, role, and responsibilities of providers, individually and collectively, evolves and modifies over time in response to the changing environment. Whilst recognising distinct missions, notably there is no implicit hierarchy.

Second, now is the time to build strong and enduring cross-societal regional eco-systems, drawing on the spirt of the European Union’s smart specialisation agenda [10] and the Civic University network. [11] The regional eco-system depends on and expands upon the tertiary eco-system. It embraces all societal actors, inclusive of all educational providers (Higher Education and Further Education and Training/Vocational Education and Training) as well as schools, the enterprise community (large companies as well as small and medium-sized enterprises), social partners and civic society. [12] Being place-based and place-responsive starts from understanding the interconnections and relationships between the physical place (rural and urban) and socio-economic issues – and taking more seriously the collective challenges of social, cultural and economic sustainability, skills, and innovation. This requires shared governance arrangements underpinned by a collective strategic vision to ensure coherence, collaboration, and coordination because each organisation and sector has its own internal logics and ambitions. There is no time to waste – afterall, children born today, and our students, will live into the next century.

Professor Ellen Hazelkorn is Joint Managing Partner, BH Associates. She is Professor Emeritus, Technological University Dublin, and Joint Editor, Policy Reviews in Higher Education.

This article is part of the Tertiary Education Futures project.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.


[1] This paper is based on “Is it Time to Rethink Our Model of Post-Secondary Education? Progressing a Tertiary Education Eco-System”, Keynote Address given by the author at the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) Annual Conference, 22nd May 2023 in London. See CGHE Working Paper 89,

[2] Santiago, P., Tremblay, K., Basri, E., & Arnal, E. (2008). Governance, Funding, Quality. In Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society (Vol. 1). p25. Retrieved from

[3] Hazelkorn, E. (2016). Towards 2030: A framework for building a world-class post-compulsory education system for Wales.

[5] Tertiary Education Advisory Commission. (2000). Shaping a Shared Vision. (Initial Report; Issue July), p8.

[6] Tertiary Education Advisory Commission. (2000). Shaping a Shared Vision. (Initial Report; Issue July), p11.

[7] Wikipedia. (2023, July 2) Biodiversity. Retrieved 04 July 2023 from

[8] Scottish Funding Council. (2021). Coherence and sustainability: A review of tertiary education and research (Issue June).

[9] Royal Scottish Academy, & Young Academy of Scotland. (2023). Tertiary Education Futures.

[10] European Commission. (n.d.). Smart Specialisation Platform.; Woolford, J., & Boden, M. (Eds.). (2021). Higher Education for Smart Specialisation. A Handbook. v2 (2.0, JRC TECHNICAL REPORT),; Hazelkorn, E., & Edwards, J. (2019). Skills and Smart Specialisation. The role of Vocational Education and Training in Smart Specialisation Strategies. Publications Office of the European Union.

[11] The Civic University Network, led by Sheffield Hallam University, UK.

[12] Goddard, J., Hazelkorn, E., Kempton, L., & Vallance, P. (2016). The Civic University: The Policy and Leadership Challenges.

Tertiary Education Futures
Publication Date
Professor Ellen Hazelkorn
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