How Higher Education Builds a City

11 Government's programme of action is focused on redefining its cities by beefing up infrastructure. Among its myriad projects, we examine how universities can - and are - working hand in hand in building smart and sustainable cities.

By August last year Rhodes University's vice-chancellor, Dr. Saleem Badat, had had enough. After nine days of the university having had no water for its students and staff - including at its 46 residences - he penned an open letter to his local municipality "to make visible our frustration and anger" and led a protest march to its local offices. This was after the last of two functioning pumps at the Howisons Dam reservoir broke down.

Just five months earlier Badat and his executive team contemplated shutting down the university for health and safety reasons when there were similar shortages. By August he was at his wits end and admitted: "We cannot cope any longer" In his letter to the Makana municipality - to which the university is its biggest customer with at least R2.5-million paid every month for rates and services - he said: "In marching today to your offices, we seek to indicate that we have borne the numerous water supply outages and problems with great patience and resolve." He added: "Can you at all imagine ... the economic impact that this will have on the town which is highly reliant for its economic well-being on the university operating?"

The furore reached the attention of the Presidency which then dispatched the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (PICC), the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs, National Treasury and other state agencies to assist in finding effective solutions. A special task team has been set up to fast-track, upgrade and install new pipes and pumps (most of which were installed in 1962). In addition, a permanent water truck has been provided to Rhodes University while the municipality services the surrounding community with water trucks.

The infrastructure upgrade, estimated to cost in excess of R150-million, will not only benefit the university but residents, especially several townships in Grahamstown East. Thandeka Ndlovu of Ethembeni informal settlement told the Sunday Times recently: "We've been here since 1993 and our taps were installed in 2003, but there is hardly any water in them." She added that queuing for water from a truck or trekking to communal taps had become a way of life.

The Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, said the infrastructure upgrade at Grahamstown served as a perfect template of how higher education, national, provincial and local government, its agencies and the private sector can come together to solve apartheid-era spatial and planning problems and create functioning and dynamic towns and cities. Unlocking these problems through infrastructure development, he said, would not only improve lives but spark economic opportunities and create jobs and industry.

Talking of the townships in the region that also felt the effects of water supply shortages, he said: "We need to mitigate the effect of apartheid planning by an integrated system ... so, in the medium-term, the PICC is looking at how to create cities where people can study, work, live and play". He said there were "university towns" such as Stellenbosch, Alice and Grahamstown where the principle sector was its institutions and thus the local and adjoining infrastructure had to be built and maintained.

Minister Patel heads the PICC Secretariat, established by President Jacob Zuma in 2012 to fast-track and coordinate government's myriad 640 infrastructure projects. Some of these are sector-specific or compartmentalised into key industrial nodes with 150 of them housed in 18 Strategic Integrated Projects (SIPS) relating to ports, rail and road infrastructure, creating industrial nodes and intra-trade corridors, the green economy and water security as well as public transport.

SIP 14, said Minister Patel, related to infrastructure development for higher education. "This focuses on actual lecture rooms, student accommodation, libraries and laboratories, as well as ICT connectivity. We are looking at the development of university towns with a combination of facilities from residence and retail to recreation and transport." Minister Patel said the conundrum for government was how to create more vibrant, smart and integrated cities while "committing to and integrating students within them".

South Africa today has around 960 000 students enrolled at its 23 higher education institutions. And from 2007 up until 2015, at least R13-billion would have been spent on higher education infrastructure alone. But what ups the ante is the prescribed growth in enrolments as set out in the White Paper on the Post-School sector and the National Development Plan which call for enrolments to increase to 1.6 million by 2030.

Dr. Badat, meanwhile, said a feature of infrastructure funding and development at universities was "successful public (state)-public (university) partnerships as well as public (university)-private sector partnerships". An example of this, he said, was the new R75-million library at Rhodes. "The state provided R50-million and R25-million was raised from alumni, the business sector and other donors," he said. This was why it was a great "fillip to the local economy, job creation and skills development" for Rhodes which had spent R300-million in infrastructure development since 2007 - especially given Grahamstown's 60% unemployment rate and socio-economic development challenges".

Minister Patel said it was part of government's infrastructure strategy to not just include higher education institutions within its infrastructure programme but encourage them to drive growth in their cities in terms of research, innovation, development, engineering and social engineering. An example of this is the city of Tshwane which he said is the biggest student town in the country. It is rolling out its ambitious ICT programme wherein it hopes to provide free Wi-Fi services.

Mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa said it formed part of the city's "Smart City" initiatives that was an integral part of its Tshwane Vision 2055 strategy. Ramokgopa said "at the core of this strategy is the use of ICT to enhance the delivery of basic services and improve the quality life". He said in terms of its implementation, it would improve revenue collection and help generate new revenues, build ICT infrastructure, improve services and provide requisite services for the city's student population.

Phase one has already begun with fully managed Free Internet Zones being available to the Tshwane University of Technology, the University of Pretoria, Tshwane North College, Mamelodi Community Centre and Church Square in the CBD. Further evidence of the "Smart City" rollout is several construction projects that will expand infrastructure at the University of Pretoria's Faculties of Health Sciences and Veterinary Sciences.

These extensions were made possible by a grant from the Department of Higher Education and Training's National Skills Fund and will increase student intake in both faculties. The call to increase the number of medical students educated locally was made by the Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, following a report by the Health Professions Council that the number of doctors qualifying annually has remained steady at about 1200 - and amid aims to increase this to 3 600.

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Pretoria, Professor Cheryl de la Rey, said the increased investment was positive. "This was not an easy choice for us because, to grow in the face of difficult economic circumstances, could compromise the quality of our education. However ... we continue to grow in areas that are closely aligned with the national needs of our country."

The addition of two new institutions within the local higher education landscape (see sidebar), meanwhile, will further raise the bar in providing city infrastructure for the two provinces in the country that do not boast higher education institutions Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape. Said Nzimande recently: "Public universities are established to address the issue of access and equity which are both objectives and primary motivators within a developing society Establishing a university in a specific area has a direct impact on a region's human capital formation, economic growth, development of a knowledge economy and local development."

President Zuma also said each university would grow its institutional, academic and infrastructure capacity in a "planned and gradual manner" over the next decade to accommodate 15 000 students at the main campus in Nelspruit and 5 000 at the main campus in Kimberley "The two universities are expected to provide additional specialist capacity to our higher education system, enabling the establishment of academic niche areas that do not exist elsewhere."

This, said Minister Patel, was the essence of government's programme. It was not just about building a university but building a community, a city with basic services and amenities while creating transport nodes and hubs of excellence. Today the refurbishment of Grahamstown's water infrastructure and supply system is in the midst of a multimillion-rand upgrade. And no-one is more thrilled than Dr. Badat. "Following the water protest march there has been welcome and sustained involvement by the PICC, Ministry of Economic Development, the Department of Water Affairs and other relevant state departments. "He added: "New infrastructure investments and rollout at universities is a cause for celebration. It is wise investment by government in maintaining and enhancing the quality of graduates and knowledge produced, both of which are critical for addressing the socio-economic development challenges of South Africa."

SA's Newest Universities How Higher Education Builds a City pursuits that can revitalise the city. The R6-billion institution will be established initially on the main campus in Kimberley, but might expand to become a multi-campus university in the future. It is envisaged that it will specialise in heritage studies, including interconnected academic fields such as museum management, archaeology, indigenous languages, and restoration architecture. Faculties for Education, Commerce, Management and Mining would also be established.

Given its location in the Northern Cape and proximity to as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the South African Large Telescope (SALT), Sol Plaatje University may also be developing knowledge and skills in disciplines related to space exploration. The university opened its doors to students in 2014 with 127 students registered. It will grow to 5 000 students and would provide accommodation to 80% of its students upon completion (in 2023).

The university buildings would include administration offices, class/lecture rooms, halls, student residences, laboratories, study spaces, social and recreation spaces, sports areas, auditoria. Universities are an integral part of the city landscape.

Dr: Saleem Badat, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes Photo: Sophie Smith Rhodes University - Grahamstown Photo: Cat Pennels

Article Source: THE STAR


Source:  The Star

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