Tertiary Education Futures: What is higher education for?

Tertiary Education Futures
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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.

A person posing for the camera
Professor Maria Dornelas FRSE
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.

Discover the Tertiary Education Futures project

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


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.

Professor Maria Dornelas FRSE, Reader, School of Biology, University of St Andrews, Young Academy of Scotland member

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.