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Open varsity gates to the commons

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Fearing the loss of an academic year, students at Walter Sisulu University (WSU) returned to their studies earlier this month after extended protests over the deplorable conditions in the institution’s residences.

The angry demonstrations in which students clashed with armed police came after Democratic Alliance national education spokesperson Belinda Bozzoli slammed the university and its managers. She said WSU was “on its last legs”, describing it as a “train smash” riddled with corruption and led by a “punch-drunk” management overseeing falling academic standards and a “dirty, unkempt and unsafe” campus. She further characterised the students as, at times, murderous, and noted that WSU was sited in “the second-most violent area in the world”.

By contrast, the former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand presented the University of Pretoria (UP) as “gorgeous” and “vibrant”, a well-managed, socially diverse and internationally competitive, if underfunded, institution — a “jewel” in South Africa’s higher education crown. Her general argument seemed to be that the government should not forsake institutions such as UP in its efforts to promote a one-size-fits-all model across the sector.

Bozzoli’s argument was greeted with anger by senior managers at WSU, who are fully aware of the atrocious conditions in which many of their students live and sought to address her concerns during her visit as part of their continuing deep commitment to trying to improve the situation at the university.

Not just in Mthatha, but also in East London, Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg, poorer students are often crammed into overpriced rooms let by unscrupulous landlords in relatively deprived neighbourhoods that lack adequate facilities and service. They may be unable to gain access to safe public spaces, affordable cafés or food shops, necessary communication services (such as high-speed internet and free mobile data), appropriate sports and cultural facilities and relevant academic-related work opportunities. Where such services and facilities are available, they are generally privatised, driving up the cost of higher education for those least able to afford it.

These issues, which have been increasingly driving student protests in South Africa, are problems of place: the actual urban environment in which universities are sited, and how local urban stakeholders, including the private sector, local authorities and the universities address or fail to address the material realities facing many historically disadvantaged students, as well as larger issues of development.

Bozzoli’s plan — the DA’s plan — appears to seek to wish away the material realities of the places in which students find themselves. Yet urban planners across the world have rather sought to confront the role that may be played by anchor institutions — facilities such as hospitals and universities that have, literally, nowhere else to go — in fostering local socioeconomic development and, in the process, improving the lives of their students and staff.

According to this view, campuses should no longer be regarded as discrete university spaces but rather as common urban spaces. In addition, in pursuit of genuinely equitable public-purpose mandates, universities have a duty to address the needs of all their students — not just those of wealthier students who can afford to live in pricey privatised digs.

In South Africa, it has been suggested that cities such asJohannesburg are still growing despite the absence of major new investment in manufacturing. It has been shown that the city has increasingly become a national and continental hub for innovative services and the knowledge industry, which depend mainly on relatively skilled labour.

This growth depends on the quality and talent of the university students produced and on Johannesburg’s ability to retain, attract and use their skills effectively. The observation can also be applied to cities such as Cape Town and Durban.

One approach to fostering such growth has been to retrofit urban infrastructure to create university-based precincts that accommodate new technology and knowledge hubs that foster innovation. For example, Wits University in Johannesburg, with little support from the municipality, has turned Braamfontein into an IT hub for Africa and is supporting the transformation of the Hillbrow precinct into a hub for the arts and creativity.

In Europe and the United States, universities have increasingly adopted a “third mission” beyond research and teaching, which has included investing in programmes and infrastructure that would secure the safety of staff and students, thus attracting and nurturing talent as well as addressing problems of urban blight and crime.

Similarly, UP has worked with a wide range of local stakeholders around its campuses, especially its Hatfield precinct, helping to create a safer environment, sustained investment and urban renewal.

Different proponents of university city-building place a range of emphases on the relative importance of public and private sector involvement in the process. A comprehensive view is that, although private investment is crucial to local economic development, anchor strategies involving universities, hospitals and other public institutions are obliged to embrace a social contract with the urban collective that goes beyond the pursuit of private wealth and the promotion of individualism.

South Africa should adopt a three-point plan to forge and implement effective place-making strategies for its higher education institutions.

First, it should investigate why some institutions, such as the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and the Durban University of Technology, which are strategically located in inner-city areas and potential investment zones, are not winning, and how the opportunities of these places may be galvanised to the mutual benefit of these institutions and their neighbourhoods.

Second, the roles, functions and effects of the higher education institutions in secondary cities, such as Mthatha, East London, Port Elizabeth, Kimberley and Nelspruit, as well the involvement of other key stakeholders in promoting development in these urban centres, need to be properly analysed and the lessons learnt.

Third, the capacities of higher education institutions based in college towns, including Stellenbosch, Grahamstown and Alice, should be assessed to determine what kind of assistance they may need to overcome some of the problems of place and deliver on their higher education mandates.

The Human Sciences Research Council is seeking to develop a programme of action for research around these issues to better inform government policy, the private sector and universities themselves. We would be delighted to hear from you.

Professor Leslie Bank is deputy director and leader of the place-making and development group at the Human Sciences Research Council’s economic performance anddevelopment unit

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Leslie Bank
Professor Leslie Bank is research director in the Inclusive Economic Development Unit at the HSRC and the co-author of a new volume on South African migration dynamics entitled Migrant Labour After Apartheid: The Inside Story (HSRC Press, 2020)

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