Higher education institutions globally are playing a major role through hubs of innovation across all faculties, writes Owen Skae
The National Arts Festival has come and gone. During the festival Rhodes Business School hosted a leadership programme for managers from a national group so that participants could also experience the festival.
They were amazed a university town such as Grahamstown, home of Rhodes University, could host such a huge, successful event where people from all walks of life could meet, socialise, share thoughts and ideas, network and, most importantly, get on. "You’ve got such a good thing here, you should build on it," was the general response, and it is true for all SA’s university cities and towns.
As part of the transformation agenda, universities and higher education institutions should focus on their role in advancing the social and economic growth of their cities and towns.
This is a global issue in which universities can and are playing a major role in their cities and towns through hubs of innovation across all faculties. In partnership with the government and business this can lead to greater entrepreneurial and employment opportunities. Universities can also contribute to an "enhancement of life", so that people want to live in a city or town, invest in it, buy property and contribute their knowledge and skills.
This ethos is summarised by the renowned British architect the late Sir Peter Shepheard in a report, Case Studies in University-led Urban Regeneration, published by University College London’s Urban Laboratory: "The plan of a university, like that of a city, should be a mechanism for enabling things to happen, for the enhancement of life."
The university city or town concept is further developed by Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper in a feature headlined Why small cities can generate big ideas: "London, New York and Tokyo have become not just overcrowded and overpriced but also overstimulating. The star of the next 25 years could be the smaller city."
He discusses the US census data interpreted for Forbes magazine by Joel Kotkin, presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in California and executive director of the Houston-based Centre for Opportunity Urbanism, and Michael Shires, associate professor at Pepperdine University, California’s school of public policy.
They found native-born Americans are leaving big cities and "moving to smaller places with between 500,000 and a million people. The favourite destinations are cheap, pleasant college towns near large airports, such as Provo, Utah, home of Brigham Young University, which is situated in the best metro area for jobs in 2017."
The trends are international, writes Kuper, adding that Provo’s European equivalents are Bristol, Bordeaux and Luxembourg. He says the world’s megacities are expecting their population growth to slow down, partly because younger people including graduates, cannot afford them. It is creating opportunities for smaller cities and towns, with an emphasis on university cities and towns, because they offer academic and cultural stimulation and are, or should be, centres of creative thinking and innovation.
South African cities and towns have much to offer local and international citizens. SA is still affordable, with many opportunities and advantages, apart from the obvious political tightrope and crime.
The government, higher education funders and universities can benefit from some of the lessons from the US and UK discussed in the Urban Laboratory report.
In 2014, the CEO of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Madeleine Atkins, said — in relation to the cuts in public funding for higher education and increased competition for students — that universities "should embrace a multidisciplinary approach related to the societal grand challenges to drive thinking and engagement". She identified five areas in which this should occur: "engagement with local schools; local skills agendas; social innovation and social enterprise; cultural engagement; and local economic growth".
Atkins said this would be supported by the council "through new local collaborative networks, partnership funding for social investment and a catalyst fund to develop a new model of exemplary anchor institution. The UK government endorsed this with its establishment of a £15m budget for new university enterprise zones in Bristol, Nottingham, Liverpool, and Bradford."
This is not about corporatising universities, it is about recreating them as leaders and actors in economic, political and social change, which is what they are intended to be.
The Urban Laboratory report describes this well: "Most universities are working hard to distance themselves from the imagery of dreaming spires, ivory towers, academical villages and other utopian scholastic communities with which they identified in the past. Instead, as the case studies show, they are using the language of the knowledge or innovation cluster, urban laboratory, communiversity, noncampus campus … to evoke new images and institutional identities that are gradually emerging as new types of built form.
"These are being packaged as new components of the urban landscape, within precincts, quarters and extensions, to underpin a revisioning of the university as urban place maker and agent of regeneration."
Many South African universities are embracing this approach but it should be exponentially grown. One of the challenges is disagreement about what needs to be done, with academics and administrators often poles apart on the university’s role.
International research shows there are innovative ways of funding and collaborating.
The university in the city or town must be put on the agenda. SA has the know-how to move this process forward in all its city and university towns. Universities should stand out as agents of regeneration and change.
• Skae is the director of Rhodes Business School.
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