Universities and cities – Key drivers of sustainability

The British Council welcomed 900 academics, university leaders, ministers and industry chiefs from 80 countries to its Going Global 2017 conference last Monday, to focus on “Global cities: connecting talent, driving change”.

But they left the opening session with a stark warning that there are changes taking place that will force higher education institutions to reconfigure or fall apart, and some challenges, like climate change, may swamp even the richest of cities if they are not tackled within the next 15 years.

Opening the session, Sir Ciarán Devane, chief executive of the British Council, said while the previous Going Global in Cape Town looked at the development of nations, this year’s conference would focus on cities, “where people live, what powers economies, what information passes between institutions, the location of information, how education is maintained in conflict areas and the role of cities as a place of sanctuary for people who are displaced”.

Above all it would be about the relationship of the university with its hinterland, and the role of the university in the debate between internationalism and isolationism.

The themes to be debated included the tensions between nationalism and internationalism, town versus gown, and the sharing of ideas around the world.

Rob Lynes, director at the British Council, said the conference was about how universities can support social and city engagement and connect world economies to global opportunities and global talent.

“Your institutions are the connectors and cities are the beating heart of innovation,” he said.

Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of Liverpool University and vice-president of Universities UK, put the conference in the context of today’s fluctuating world. She said many delegates had come looking for “answers to our problems and solutions to our challenges”.

Answers were more likely to come where delegates could share their latest conundrum not only with immediate neighbours but with institutions facing other problems many thousands of miles away.

Among the challenges noted is the “scale of shift in the tone of our global political conversation” which had “taken us by surprise”.

This included a misrepresentation “forced on us”, the argument that “globally engaged means dislocation from the local community".

“I fundamentally disagree with this. Global cooperation is a necessity and local and global are indelibly intertwined,” she said.

Relationship between the city and universities

It was left to the keynote speaker of the opening plenary, Aromar Revi, director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements and co-chair of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, to flesh out the significance of the conference theme of the relationship between the city and universities.

Revi led the campaign to agree the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal or SDG 11, which, he said, aims to make cities and human settlements “inclusive, safe, resilient, productive, and therefore sustainable” by 2030.

The SDG reflected the reality that “urbanisation is one of the most significant challenges facing humanity”.

He said with the urban global population set to grow to about five million and global urban production to be worth about US$90 trillion by 2030, cities are both the “greatest driver of innovation” and also the places where poverty, inequality and risk are concentrated.

To achieve the SDG would require the creation of 600 million new jobs in the next 14 years across the world and the development of safe and adequate housing for one to two billion people.

Two new ideas had come out of the creation of the SDG, however. One was the commitment that no one should be left behind – it is about universal access to water supply, to green spaces, to sustainable transport, and support for “disruptive technologies that are socially inclusive”.

The other is the notion that “every country is a developing country”.

“This is about a universal agenda across the world, even for Sweden way at the top of the index,” he said.

It is about a new partnership between 200 odd countries, and thousands of local and regional governments, enterprises, civil society organisations, unions and universities.

This required new governance arrangements and universities had a key role to play in building that.

“Globalisation of knowledge is not something new,” Revi stressed.

There are examples of the relationship between cities and universities – and examples of internationalised universities – dating back thousands of years. The Ancient Library of Alexandria, Egypt, was a centre of scholarship in the third century BC. Nalanda university established in Rajgir, Bihar, India, in the early fourth century AD, attracted “bright scholars from all over Asia and had many of the disciplines you recognise today”, Revi said.

A more recent example could be found in Bologna, founded in 1088, which capitalised on the great transition from east to west of students and scholars at the time of the creation of city states and free cities.

“Nation states are only about 500 years old,” Revi said. “Before that came the idea of the free university, the charter, the city. They worked together in sync.”

He said across the world the great shift of poor people from rural areas into cities has occurred because cities provide tremendous opportunities, including for education – “in South Asia education is the second most important reason for migrating to cities”.

There is a need to build a “hierarchy of different settlements to make sure of access to health and education, so that no one is being left behind”. That is what the SDGs are about, he said.

When asked by a Bishop from Nigeria how developing countries might take advantage of technology without having to establish “huge structures”, Revi stressed that the internet provides “a means for life beyond where people are, but I don’t think we understand that yet”.

A modern example in education is the evolution of MOOCs – massive open online courses – to the point where some have webinars at the end of every week, where 200 people across eight time zones will come at you with questions from maybe Barcelona, Manila, Sao Paolo and New Delhi at the same time.

“Criticality comes from face to face engagement. Unless you have criticality and proposition, the move to agency becomes difficult,” he says.

One limitation, however, is the language, because MOOCs started in English.

“We need to find new forms of urbanism that do not always depend on ideas from the West and the creation of those knowledges are difficult to build.”

Serious challenges

But the internet has also enabled serious challenges to higher education, contesting the notion that you effect policy change based on evidence. “The model is that you seize the narrative on social media and then have a different policy and development. It is very important to have people discern the difference between the two. The narrative was seized in Europe in the 1930s and it was very dangerous.”

Revi outlined a long history of cities built around universities and universities playing a key role in the development of cities. The centres of knowledge creation have shifted around the world over the centuries, from the East, to Europe, to the West coast of the US, and now China is becoming perhaps the most significant knowledge hub.

But he said the world is at a crossroads, particularly on climate change and in future many institutions will be deeply challenged and may fall apart. “Our students are telling us this in everything they do in every day of their lives,” Revi said. “So the idea is co-creation, we have to create a new generation of institutions – and reconstruct 900 year old institutions – to address some of these questions.”

On some questions – “if the world warms by 1.5 to 2 degrees it may be impossible for us to survive in spite of being one of the richest cities in the world, because the ecosystem will start collapsing” – we may only have 15 years to do so, he warned.