Megacities and the challenge of inclusive higher education

Ever since the first humans migrated out of Africa many years ago, humanity has been on the move and humans have been migrating on a global scale ever since.

But what exactly is migration? In some non-human animals (for example, some geese, hummingbirds, butterflies and whales), migration is a behavioural adaptation (learned behaviour) but it can also have a genetic basis.

In other words, migratory phenotypes are influenced by both genetic factors (that is, passing of traits from parents to offspring) and epigenetic factors (that is, how behaviour and the environment affects the way genes express themselves). In short, nature and nurture.

Human migration, on the other hand, is driven by the complex interaction of political, legal, economic, social and environmental factors, such as the human need for a better quality of life for oneself and one’s children. Whether it be animal or human migration, the underlying mechanism at work is the same – the basic drive to survive through adaptation.

With respect to humanity, migration is the movement of humans across geographical regions with the intent to permanently resettle. Over the past century in particular, the world has experienced an unprecedented migration of people within and across nations.

In a hyper-connected and hyper-interdependent world, wars, pandemics, economic crises and environmental disasters, among others, will continue to affect national and international migration patterns.

Internal and external migration

Migration can be classified in different ways. External (international) migration is the movement of people (or animals) between nations. Internal migration is the movement of people within a nation. Both types of migration have an impact on urban and rural development.

In the United States, for example, about 15% of the population moves internally each year on average (mostly within cities, counties and states). Cities continually grow and shrink as a result of migration. Both types of migration play a major role in shaping cities, nations and the world.

There are an estimated 272 million international migrants in the world today which represents about 3.5% of the world’s population. Of these, there are over 100 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced from their homeland as a result of war, violence, persecution and the like.

In addition to the rise in migration, the world population will continue to grow and will likely peak at around 11 or 12 billion people at the turn of the next century, putting continued pressure on societies to address sustainable development issues.

Push and pull factors

Migration, whether forced (push) or voluntary (pull), has been one of the main factors shaping nations and global development throughout human history. A push factor is any factor that causes people to be pushed out (repelled out) of their homes. Push factors are either human-made disasters such as war, persecution, violence, human rights violations, deforestation and nuclear fallout or they are natural disasters such as hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes and earthquakes.

Some examples of human and natural causes of migration include the Syrian civil war, which drove millions of people from their homes, the persecution of the Rohingya people, the ‘migrant caravans’ of Central America, the severe drought in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia and Hurricane Matthew that devastated Haiti. Events like these have led to the displacement of millions of people across the globe.

A pull factor, on the other hand, is any factor that causes people to be pulled into (attracted to) another residence, such as economic and social opportunities. Furthermore, international pull factors can be referred to as emigration, leaving one’s country on a voluntary basis, or immigration, entering another country on a voluntary basis, for the purpose of establishing permanent residence.

Migration is a function of both push and pull factors (repulsion and attraction). These factors interact and often occur together in complex and unexpected ways. For instance, human-made deforestation can lead to floods, landslides and droughts, which, in turn, can lead to increased climate migration. The wide-scale consequences of these human-made and natural disasters can also lead to climate change, ecosystem destruction and species extinction, among others.

Push and pull factors can be likened to the poles of a magnet where the interacting forces repel (pushes) and attract (pulls) each other. In the natural and social worlds, the type and strength of these interacting forces influence migration outcomes.

It should come as no surprise therefore that countries with stable political systems based on rights and justice, strong economic systems with high standards of living and inclusive, tolerant societies tend to exert a strong magnetic pull on those in search of a new and better homeland.

The birth of megacities

People tend to migrate to cities for socio-economic and educational opportunities. In modern money-based and job-based economic systems, many businesses tend to migrate towards high population centres for better access to labour and consumer markets.

People tend to migrate towards high population centres for the same reasons – access to jobs and services. In short, employers tend to go where the people are located and people tend to go where the employers are located.

Since lifelong learning is now a requirement for modern life, access to higher education institutions is an important variable in this equation.

In a healthy economy, these two interdependent entities – organisations (employers, producers) and people (employees, consumers) – depend on each other to create a circular flow of money and healthy economic activity.

In spite of the challenges and risks in managing large cities, there tends to be a positive correlation between city size and productivity, resulting in increased GDP per capita in large cities.

Key statistics on urban growth show that, currently, 55% of the global population resides in urban areas and this is expected to increase to nearly 70% by 2050, with China, India and Nigeria accounting for nearly one-third of that increase.

Currently, North America has the highest percentage of people living in urban areas at 82%. All else being equal, the more developed a country, the more people tend to migrate towards large cities.

Thus, as the future unfolds, more cities will likely morph into megacities (10 million or more inhabitants) and some of these megacities will morph into metacities (20 million or more inhabitants), putting additional pressure on city planners and leaders to manage growth and rethink how large cities should be reimagined for the future.

These megacities have become the de facto version of modern-day city-states. By 2030, there will be over 40 megacities in the world. The geopolitical power of the future will increasingly be vested in population size rather than land size.

When cities find it impractical to grow horizontally, they begin to grow vertically (for example, high-rise buildings and subway systems) but there are limits to this type of growth. Given the severe pressures put on cities as they continue to grow, government leaders and policy-makers should also seek ways to mitigate these pressures by providing incentives to businesses and people to live outside highly dense population areas.

The stark realities of climate change and migration require government, businesses and citizens to rethink how life and work in the 21st century should be organised to yield a high quality of life for all.

Cities of the future

City populations will continue to increase and the world will become increasingly crowded, especially for city dwellers. Megacities will become major hubs for commerce, culture and education on a scale never before seen or imagined.

These de facto city-states will become increasingly powerful geopolitically, economically and culturally, making them more powerful, economically and geopolitically, than some nations. Most newly emerging megacities and metacities will be from developing nations in Asia and Africa.

Planning and managing the cities of the future will require a new type of mindset and leadership skills. To help ensure equity, inclusion and justice for all and to, concomitantly, prevent the rise of high unemployment and inflation, city leaders will need to rethink and reimagine how best to manage the economy while implementing sustainable development policies.

High unemployment and inflation can result in the emergence of crime, homelessness, slums, dilapidated tenements, pollution and poverty, among other negative consequences. As such, the right to employment has become increasingly important in today’s job-based and money-based economic systems, per Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Achieving these goals is no small task and it will require a rights-based approach to political, economic, social and environmental affairs in order to ensure a good quality of life for all. To that end, effective leadership is not only focused on planning, organising and managing resources, but also on ensuring that core humanistic values are reflected in governance, policy, laws, rules and norms.

The UN World Cities Report 2022 provides a useful roadmap for urban leaders and city planners, centred around five guiding principles: observance of human rights, sound economic policies, adherence to democratic values, lifelong and lifewide education for all and implementation of sustainable development practices.

In addition, any discussion on the future of cities should also include the impact of migration on non-urban areas.

First, cities are not totally self-sufficient, especially concerning food supply chains. Thus, cities rely on agricultural areas for their survival.

Second, the recent pandemic demonstrated that remote work can be a viable option for many people – doing this could alleviate some of the problems experienced by cities (traffic congestion, long commute times, air pollution, expensive housing and office costs, among others). For example, some countries and companies are now providing incentives for people to live and work in non-urban areas.

The emerging cities of the future will also have major implications for basic and higher education, for instance, how higher education institutions of the future should be developed, including how teaching and learning is more flexibly delivered (online, face-to-face, hybrid)? How should immigrants be mainstreamed into educational systems in ways that respect their different cultural, religious and political beliefs?

The future of humanity will depend largely on our ability to overcome attitudes of prejudice, bigotry and intolerance, which have the potential to express themselves in the form of racism, xenophobia, sexism, supremacism and elitism, among others. People must learn to think in more inclusive and humane ways.

Patrick Blessinger is president and chief scientist at the International HETL (Higher Education Teaching and Learning) Association. Taisir Subhi Yamin is a general director at the International Centre for Innovation in Education, Germany. Sameerah T Saeed is funding coordinator, Monitoring and Quality Assurance Agency, Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research – Kurdistan Region, Erbil, Iraq.