How universities can play a leading role in their cities

South African higher education policy is generally failing to tackle the issue of how the country’s universities can play a leading role in the evolution of the cities in which most of them are based.

Even students who have taken to the streets in protest at the miserable, overcrowded conditions in the campus neighbourhoods in which they are forced to live have failed to challenge the elitist concept of universities as detached ivory towers which continues to dominate much higher education policy-making.

Despite the arrival of the urban age – with more people globally now living in towns rather than the countryside – the cities hosting South African universities are often regarded as little more than the local sites where these institutions happen to be located, as if there were, or should be, no civic engagement between municipality and university.

Urban universities are too often seen as being merely in the city, rather than of and working for the city, experts recently told an audience of international and South African policy-makers, practitioners and academics at a workshop convened in Cape Town by the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University in the United States and the South African national research body, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

Spatially-defined inequality

Such oppositional town-vs-gown rhetoric in South Africa has failed to acknowledge the actual political economy of urban development, in which vested interests continue to produce spatially defined socio-economic inequalities.

The approach has further ignored crucial challenges that have arisen from the national government’s efforts to massify higher education after the introduction of democracy in 1994 brought an end to apartheid.

A key concern underpinning the nationwide #FeesMustFall student protest movement which erupted in 2015 has been the failure to provide poor, black and coloured students at urban universities with the material, social and cultural conditions that enable them to reap the full benefits of more democratic access to higher education and urban life.

Taking seriously the task of urbanising the South African university offers the potential to realise a more holistic approach, the audience at the Cape Town workshop was told.

Turning the tide

In this regard, although many universities, both in South Africa and further afield, have struggled with a limited understanding of their spatial footprint and the implications of their urban context, the tide is starting to turn.

Reflecting on the experience of universities in Canada and across Europe, James Ransom, a researcher at University College London, said: “For some, the city has become a greater strategic concern and opportunity, and there is evidence of universities slowly undertaking an ‘inward’ or local turn, from nation to city – for example, university leaders prioritising city trade delegations over national ones”.

An important first step is to recognise the many synergies and potential opportunities for co-operation that exist between urban and academic bodies which may share significant institutional connectivity and cultural orientations.

“Given the similarity between the spatial imaginaries produced by universities and cities – for example, their shared concern with liveability – it is perhaps surprising that the town-and-gown divide is not crossed more regularly,” said Michele Acuto, who is a professor of urban politics at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

Activist approach

Accordingly, a more activist approach was promoted at the workshop.

“Within the context of rapid urban transformation which is disrupting communities and established order, it may not be enough merely to hope for inclusive societies,” said Nisa Mammon, a professional planner with NM & Associates Planners and Designers. “Academia should engage in inclusive development projects.”

For example, a mutually-beneficial response would be to recraft the student-protest narrative to support local development and build new social and spatial centralities in city cores. In South Africa, such action must entail grasping some thorny issues, including the question of land that, in large part, continues to determine who controls and benefits from city spaces and how social reproduction takes place within them.

Despite some political rhetoric to the contrary, government approaches tend to support competitive land markets and the economic interests of developers over more socially-oriented objectives. In campus neighbourhoods, this can quickly lead to gentrification – but universities, working with municipalities, could promote a more inclusive approach by leveraging their clout as major owners of land and property to integrate students more fully into their cities.

Blurring the physical edges between university and public spaces can also create new opportunities to partner around inclusive urban development.

South Africa’s universities are well positioned to assume proactive roles in their cities and regions, and may learn from the experiences of higher education institutions in other countries that have embraced roles as place-makers, engines of innovation and economic development, and centres of knowledge-production which look to inform local decision- and policy-making.

At the same time, there is a need to be realistic. It was noted that the ability of universities to help establish new urban socio-economic and cultural trajectories is limited by both institutional and financial constraints.

In order to foster effective engagement between universities and cities, a number of bureaucratic obstacles must be overcome. Universities and cities tend to speak different languages in pursuit of their goals, even when these may be complementary. It can also be difficult to identify counterparts in their parallel bureaucracies.

In the absence of city-university engagement in the production of urban knowledge, the scientific literacy of those leading municipal policy-making and the political literacy of academic researchers working in relative isolation may be limited – perpetuating a system in which expertise remains incomplete and fragmented.

Participants at the workshop called for the staff of higher education and municipal bodies to collaborate with local communities to pool resources, share knowledge, and break down cultures of non-cooperation and mistrust. Opening the potential of urban universities in South Africa necessitates fostering and institutionalising a better understanding of urbanisation among and between academics, municipal officials, and urban residents themselves.

The power to produce larger change lies in capacity-building within and across academia, city governments and local communities powered by new forms of urban networking and a commitment to inclusive and sustainable urban development.

Mark Paterson is a senior journalist and communications consultant with a wide range of non-governmental, government and academic organisations. Dr Jean-Paul Addie is an assistant professor at the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University in the United States.