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Tertiary Education – big questions need big solutions

28 Nov 2022 | Dr Charles Knight and Joni Alexander Tertiary education ecosystems are evolving in different ways across the world. Dr Charles Knight and Joni Alexander of Advance HE pose a series of provocations to help define the big questions that need big solutions.

The terms 'higher education' and 'university' are often used interchangeably, confusing the level of provision with the place that delivers it. Colleges, private providers and prisons are some of the other places that are delivering higher education – yet they, and universities, are far more nuanced and complex. All these institutions are unique and operate in a tertiary education ecosystem that is becoming increasingly different depending upon context and location.

This term - ‘tertiary’ - is used to pull together all post-compulsory education under one umbrella. Sometimes it’s called the ‘third level’, ‘post-16’ or ‘post-18’ - depending upon the age when compulsory education ends and student choice begins in a nation. Tertiary education is not all happening in a uniform way.

Member projects 2022-23:Tertiary Education: Navigating Complexity

Join in the discussion as we explore the big questions that transcend traditional borders to find the best practices within tertiary education ecosystems around the world. Find out more about the project here

Each nation has its own national vision – or competing visions – driving its own tertiary education ecosystem to look and function in different ways. With this, there are identified aspects of ecosystems that make navigating within and between them challenging. A year ago, Advance HE started this conversation with members within the UK and Ireland. Funding, language, culture, varied levels of government control and influence, and clarity (or conflicting views) of purpose are all areas within tertiary education that are packed with nuance and therefore can be confusing to explore. Navigating these spaces is difficult even for seasoned experts, and even more so for the students or learners feeling their way through a system that does not always recognise their squiggly career and lifelong learning needs.

Higher education is a part, but not all, of tertiary education. Universities are but one type of institution. This tertiary education mix includes further education and work-based learning.

Some nations are taking a cohesive approach to pushing their tertiary education sectors closer together into a big tent of funding and regulation, as we see in Scotland, New Zealand and soon, Wales. These systems often look to create a seamless learner journey in their ambitions for the sector to operate more closely and collaboratively. In other nations, there remains a more traditional approach to funding and regulation under the pillars of further and higher education, yet a vision to pull them together into a ‘unified system which is balanced and integrated’, as in the Republic of Ireland. Other systems operate with a lower degree of centralised funding and regulation, yet deliver a level of student and employer-driven choice – albeit with higher levels of student investment and debt – such as the USA. Yet no matter what the national approach is to tertiary education – there are tensions.

Institutions must balance the needs of different stakeholders: local and national governments, regulatory bodies, employers, staff, and nearly always their raison d’etre, students. Tertiary education is experiencing major policy, economic and social shifts.

All of this creates challenge to how lifelong learning manifests into value for the student, society and economy. This value of tertiary education is the ‘why’. But what about the ‘how’?

What can we do today, so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?  

This question Freire [1] asks is fundamental if we are trying to design the tertiary education system of tomorrow, one that will achieve the egalitarian goals that society strives to achieve. What are the big questions we need to be asking now as we shape our tertiary education system?

Although there are specific national differences, there are some common issues that we see across tertiary education that are possible ‘big questions’ in the next decade:

There are financial pressures. As inflation grips so many nations, with some in an economic downturn, there are structural questions about what is funded and what isn’t:

  • What are the priorities and where are the efficiencies across a tertiary education ecosystem?
  • Can cuts be avoided through a clearer case for investment?
  • What arguments and actions are needed to make that case?

Tied to this concern, there is the question of how provision is funded and provided across the tertiary education space in educational ‘cold-spots’:

  • How does investment drive economic prosperity and cohesive communities?
  • Who should be investing?
  • What are the expectations of students and learners in these spaces and how does the public at large understand the economic and societal benefits?

There is an ongoing question of alignment in terms of balancing high-quality academic teaching and learning against workforce planning and addressing vocational skills gaps:

  • How is this shaped?
  • What do effective collaborations and partnerships look like when they are effective?

The role of tertiary education is seen by some as an engine to lead on action for climate change, sustainability, and embedding of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals:

  • How does a tertiary education ecosystem collaboratively, and at institution-level, create and maintain momentum and leadership for sustainability?
  • What choices are we giving to students to support them in pursuing their learning and actions towards the Sustainable Development Goals?

The tertiary education ecosystem can be clunky and hard to use by students and learners. It can reward and penalise them depending upon their choice to pursue an academic or technical path – or just waiting until they’re ready:

  • How can an ecosystem’s leaders make strategic and operational decisions that promote usability and that ‘seamless learner journey’ - one that isn’t always a straight shot up the ladder?
  • What changes have led to a national society valuing academic and technical qualifications equally?

You, our members, who are providers of all types of higher education, will have your own thoughts and perspectives on these questions, as well as other challenges of working within the broader ecosystem of tertiary education.

What are those big challenges that you face working in this complex ecosystem of tertiary education? How do we – or should we – face them?

By getting involved, you will help shape a series of online webinars and panel discussions on these big questions facing tertiary education ecosystems around the world. We will unpick where practices have worked – and haven’t - within institutions, partnerships, both regionally and nationally. Register below to stay up to date on upcoming events and publications that will be available to members of Advance HE.

Join the conversation now. Submit the biggest challenge and question you face within tertiary education here.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, Continuum.

Project Output: Big Questions/Big Solutions Crowdsourcing

Join the conversation now. Submit the biggest challenges and questions you face within tertiary education here.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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