From student to teacher: my reflection on the future of tertiary education

Tertiary Education Futures
Publication Date
Alexa Green

Alexa is a Research Associate at SRUC and is also involved in the delivery of the Environmental Protection and Management MSc, which she graduated from.

Background and context

Alexa Green, Research Associate, Scotland’s Rural College

I was in the final semester of my MSc in Environmental Protection and Management at the University of Edinburgh when I was asked to participate in the stakeholder discussions for the Tertiary Education Futures project. We were slowly coming out of strict Covid-19 lockdowns and, like many of my peers, I was disappointed to say the least by my experience during my one year of studies.

As a student, you relish any opportunity to provide feedback on how academic institutions should be run. Taking part in the consultations provided me the opportunity to provide feedback which was both exciting and welcomed. There are certain aspects of the student experience that feel so obvious when you are going through the experience that it seems incomprehensible that lecturers and institutions would mess up on the smallest details. But now, I am experiencing things from the other side as a researcher and aspiring lecturer. It is amazing how quickly your perspective on the same issue can shift if you just cross one threshold.

As I write this blog, I am completing a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice – where I am understanding the nuances of teaching at a UK higher education institute. My reflections in this blog post focus on some of the key findings which came from the Tertiary Education Futures report. I aim to straddle both sides of the proverbial fence. On the one hand, I approach my reflections on the report from a student perspective, and on the other the perspective of someone who is now tasked with delivering lectures and developing course material.

Paper planes against a purple background with a green plane leading the way

Tertiary Education Futures project

A ‘blue-skies’ thought experiment, informed by sectoral views to stimulate continued creative thinking about how post-school education might evolve over the next few decades.

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Reflections on the Tertiary Education Futures report

Learner-centredness for an ever-changing learner demographic and world: Learners are changing, and this is true in my own case. Some of the students in my year came straight from an undergraduate degree because they felt unsure of their career prospects. Some came to the degree after several years of working, and of those, many (including myself) had to save up quite a bit of money just to fund their education as Overseas students. Some students had minimal interest in the topic but saw their attendance at a prestigious university in the UK as an opportunity to boost their employability in their home country. It is important for institutions and teachers to fully understand what motivates different students to enter tertiary education and how the learning can be tailored to their specific needs – while also understanding that not all students will connect with all learning materials and approaches in the same way.

Collaborative approaches to teaching and learning: Students want to be heard and they will be heard. I believe that as a body, students are becoming increasingly vocal about how they want to be taught and engaged in tertiary education. While this is an amazing opportunity to enhance co-creation and to implement creative teaching techniques, it also places an immense burden on staff who are juggling research, teaching, and other professional duties; all while perhaps not feeling entirely supported by their institutions to deliver the quality of curriculum that is expected from them. Transparency between students and staff can be helpful in breaking down barriers and opening perspectives on the difficulties of juggling teaching, research and other administrative tasks.  

Moving beyond self-interests: I really appreciated that one of the key findings was that institutions must move beyond their self-interests to overcome divisions and unite around a common cause to tackle societal crises. It is important, both as staff and students, to continue to be critical of the institutions we either work for or pay our tuition fees to. If we are not consistently engaging in a practice of receiving and implementing feedback, then we are doing a disservice to the field of academia. To attract the brightest minds and retain leading academics we must seek to improve continuously – perhaps by challenging the status quo. Institutions must be willing to change and improve based on critical feedback from the students and teachers rather than prioritise shareholder interests.

Integrating interdisciplinarity and problem-based learning: Tackling wicked problems necessitates interdisciplinary problem solving, so I was very glad to see this come through as a key learning. As students, we want to be as employable as possible, and we also want to improve our inter-personal skills. I believe tertiary education is well-placed to help students gain these skills and I believe it has a duty to incorporate interdisciplinarity and creative problem solving in core teachings. In practice, this can be very successful. For example, one of the new courses in the Environmental Protection and Management programme is called Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Environment which exposes students to the multitude of ways environmental problems can be addressed and how we might work with one another to achieve this.

Community learning and development: In addition to developing skills for the workforce, students can contribute to the communities they are a part of and society at large through tertiary education. There is so much to learn outside of the classroom and students want to feel connected to the communities in which they are living and learning in. Tertiary education has an opportunity to develop long-lasting relationships with community programmes. Although different learners may come and go, the connections between higher education institutions and their communities should remain strong and reciprocal. Considering my own perspective as well as the experiences of some of my classmates, connecting with the wider community in Edinburgh has been key to helping us feel connected to the place, and part of a wider learning and teaching environment.

Final thoughts

This report should be an important conversation starter for tertiary education institutions to consider when discussing their strategies and goals for the future. The characteristics of a typical student are changing – as are the needs of the work force and the global challenges we are facing. We must be prepared to consider the key findings of this report with an open mindset and explore ways to work together to ensure students and staff feel supported and excited by the future direction of tertiary education.

Alexa Green, Research Associate, SRUC.

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.