Universities Role in Development in Africa and the World Over

In Kenya, what initially started off as a small animal husbandry research station, was given to the Seventh Day Adventist Church to create a university, dramatically transforming the area within just 25 years. The University of Eastern Africa, Baraton, in Nandi county, was established 50km away from the nearest urban centre, Eldoret. What was initially an area dominated by agriculture and animal farming, dotted with the shining tin roofs of small shacks and criss-crossed by dirt roads, has now become a well-functioning university town.

With a student population ranging from 2,500 – 3,000 every year, most of whom stay off campus, businesses have been drawn in, roads have been tarmacked, land use has shifted with more buildings going up and social services have mushroomed.

While the negative drawbacks of this university development have been felt with hikes in prices, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, increasing insecurity and cultural erosion, the benefits outweigh the negative.

The concept of ‘net-positive’ was explored, referenced and supported throughout both the Annual Conference of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges and the International Sustainable Campus Network Annual Conference in Hong Kong early this year. Both recognised a growing focus on the way in which universities and cities can form effective, collaborative alliances to contribute towards meeting the challenge of urban living in the 21st Century. It’s a response to the World Economic Forum Global Risks 2015 report which flags up climate change, urbanisation and growing population and aspirations within them.

City leaders in Africa need an education on the outsized role universities can play in shaping urban environments. Samantha Spooner writes for the World Economic Forum that a few cities on the continent have formed partnerships with academia — but most never bother.

Universities and colleges are desirable partners for developing cities, Spooner writes. They usually own prime real estate in central areas and can tap financial endowments. The issue of cities teaming with educational institutions was debated late last month at the Africa Universities Summit in Johannesburg.

A few cities have taken advantage of local universities, the article says. The University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa partnered with Johannesburg to add affordable student and staff housing to a downtown district. The American University in Cairo relocated most of its campus in 2008 from crowded Tahrir Square to a satellite city 45 minutes away. That freed up more space in central Cairo for other development.

There are opportunities for universities and cities to work collaboratively in both the developed and developing nations. Whilst there are examples of good practice in Europe there are nowhere near enough of them. It needs a strong sense of leadership on both sides – a willingness for Vice Chancellors and senior academics and professional staff within universities to build effective working relationships and their local authorities, strategic partners, Mayors, business leaders such that effort and investment is made in common goals.


Author: Andy Nolan

An experienced director-level professional with expertise in sustainable development, cities, universities, governance, policy and strategy. 15 years of experience working in the field of sustainability in both the private and public sector. Has worked within a local authority, in multi-authority partnerships locally and nationally. Experience in higher education across four universities in the UK plus representative bodies. Particular areas of interest and expertise include; energy; transport; climate change; waste management; air quality; decentralised energy; education for sustainability; smart cities; knowledge transfer; research.

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