How mayors see the relationship between town and gown

The roles of city fathers and universities have to intertwine to find solutions to globalisation and urbanisation issues, specifically that the knowledge generated in higher education becomes part of the social fabric and change in the environments in which it operates.

This was the crux of the argument emerging from the panel discussion during the final session of the British Council’s Going Global 2017 conference in London last week on what city leaders want or need from universities.

“Our role involves mitigating inequality and building well-integrated cities. The universities must be a part of the process, dealing with the human resources and improving the quality of life for the citizens their institutions serve,” Rome Vice-mayor Luca Bergamo says.

The discussion centred on how the relationships between cities and their universities should be mutually beneficial, and principally what elements city leaders want from those institutions. The panel questioned the opportunities and challenges inherent in a relationship that has existed for hundreds of years.

While it is widely accepted the relationship should be mutually beneficial, there is also an acknowledgement that the two parties engage as self-interested actors where their strategic goals can as easily align as not do so.

British Council Chair Christopher Rodrigues says until the digital age, universities connected with citizens in their immediate surroundings. Today those connections can be any which way globally, both offering significant opportunities for universities, but offering equally significant discourse.

“Social discourse is the tinderbox for revolution – 81% of [US President Donald] Trump voters said life was better 50 years ago,” he says.

Dr Jean-Paul Addie, Marie Curie Research Fellow in the department of geography at University College London, says universities in the digital era are assuming new roles and responsibilities that demand they engage with cities and city planners in a world facing urbanisation challenges.

He believes cities are centres for crises and opportunities, but that “town and gown” must interact while inherently contradicting each other. In an environment where China has poured more concrete since the 2008 global financial crisis than the US has done in its history, towns and universities must learn from the new experiences and tackle challenges holistically.

“This demands understanding how suburbs interact; the discourse and issues around wealth and poverty and how universities can assist with these challenges. Universities must look broader than their current confines for both the opportunities and solutions to their challenges,” Addie says.

Marie-Christine Lemardeley, Paris deputy mayor responsible for higher education, research and student life, says the concept of the city and its higher education institutions working separately was foreign as “French students have always been woven into the Parisian fabric”. Governments must assist universities and town planners in engaging with each other and with the suburbs and societies on which they have an effect.

Currently Paris is developing a new campus, but only via dialogue with city planners to maximise the potential the facility can have for French and Parisian society.

Professor Rebecca Hughes, British Council director of education, says the experience of the University of Cape Town or UCT in South Africa demonstrates the different viewpoints between cities and universities. UCT is Africa’s highest ranked university and has global ambitions, encouraging academics to focus on international perspectives and challenges, and grooming students to work outside South Africa.

However, the Cape Town city fathers turn to UCT to find solutions to its social challenges including unemployment, housing and infrastructure needs.

“Cities are not homogenous and people living in them have different demands and expectations. This creates tensions and the question comes in how towns and gowns can marry their civic engagements with global expectations and outcomes,” Hughes says.

Rural concerns

However, the panellists acknowledge that city managements that ignore the demands and interests of rural and peri-urban districts touching their borders likely do so at their peril, politically and economically, as the recent French general election definitely reflected.

“I have to be concerned about what happens outside Paris – those rural areas feed our schools,” Lemardeley quips, adding that the recent French general elections demonstrated what happens politically when the voices emerging from rural areas are ignored.

Yerlan Aukenov, deputy mayor of Almaty in Kazakhstan, says the country currently spends more than US$2 billion importing agricultural products and there are considerations for establishing an agricultural university to reduce this expenditure by solving Kazakhstan’s food issues.

“Developing our own research programme will be different to what happens elsewhere in the world and the country has approached local business to find the solution. However, the universities must also be participants into the future, as the answer will come from collaboration,” he says.

Rome's Vice-mayor Bergamo says, given the expanse of the city, there has to be a symbiotic relationship between the city and rural areas.