/ 18 January 2019

Shaping cities goes beyond student beds

Universities in South Africa could promote an inclusive approach to integrating students into the cities where they are situated by working together with municipalities
Universities in South Africa could promote an inclusive approach to integrating students into the cities where they are situated by working together with municipalities, which have clout as major owners of land and property. Photo: Madelene Cronjé


Beds, it would seem from a cursory reading of the South African business press, are a major issue. The government has announced that a staggering additional 300  000 of them are required to accommodate the nation’s students.

In response, the department of higher education and training has called for private-sector support to plug the gap. Investors are being wooed by the government-backed Development Bank of South Africa to finance the provision of 3  000 student beds and another 18  000 have been targeted by accommodation provider South Point, which is owned by another government agency, the Public Investment Corporation. For its part, the department has also pledged R6-billion in grants to seven universities under a pilot programme to provide 30  000 new on-campus beds.

Clearly, the fund-raising drive addresses a dire need.

“At Walter Sisulu University, as many as eight students are packed into a single room,” said Leslie Bank, the deputy executive director of the economic performance and development unit of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in Cape Town.

The terms of the government’s response, though, are problematic. Beds alone are not enough, especially when the approach concentrates on the provision of more on-campus accommodation. Not only do many universities lack the necessary resources and infrastructure to support such development, but also the government’s belief that off-campus housing is generally too expensive and inadequate emphasises divisions between town and gown.

This view reinforces the elitist concept of universities as detached ivory towers and promotes the idea that host cities are just where these institutions happen to be, as though there was no civic engagement between municipality and university.

Urban universities are too often seen as being in the city, rather than of and working for the city, experts recently told an audience of international and South African policymakers, practitioners and academics at a workshop convened in Cape Town by the Urban Studies Institute of the Georgia State University in the United States and the HSRC.

In South Africa, the oppositional town-versus-gown rhetoric fails to acknowledge the political economy of urban development, in which vested interests continue to produce spatially defined socioeconomic inequalities. Government programmes that have sought to implement urban transformation to scale, including with the provision of hundreds of thousands of beds, fail to address the challenges of sustainable urban development and to manage popular expectations accordingly.

“The department of higher education’s use of the term ‘beds’ to frame its response dehumanises and desocialises the challenges faced in the reproduction of student life across South Africa’s cities,” Bank told the workshop that explored how universities and cities can improve civic engagement and institutional collaboration to create more inclusive forms of urban development.

In this context, the prevalence of the term “beds” in the government’s and the private sector’s discourse overlooks a larger issue underpinning the nationwide #FeesMustFall movement, which is the failure to provide poor, black and coloured students at urban universities with the material, social and cultural conditions to enable them to reap the full benefits of more democratic access to higher education and urban life.

Taking seriously the task of urbanising the South African university offers the potential to realise a more holistic approach.

In this regard, although many universities, both in South Africa and elsewhere, have struggled with a limited understanding about their spatial footprint and the implications of their urban context, the tide is starting to turn.

Reflecting on the experience of universities in Canada and Europe, James Ransom, a researcher at the University College London, said: “For some, the city has become a greater strategic concern and opportunity, and there is evidence of universities slowly undertaking an ‘inward’ or local turn, from nation to city; for example, university leaders prioritising city trade delegations over national ones.”

A vital first step is to recognise the many synergies and potential opportunities for co-operation that exist between urban and academic bodies, which may share significant institutional connectivity and cultural orientations.

“Given the similarity between the spatial imaginaries produced by universities and cities — for example, their shared concern with liveability — it is perhaps surprising that the town-and-gown divide is not crossed more regularly,” said Michele Acuto, a professor of urban politics at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

Accordingly, a more activist approach was promoted at the workshop.

“Within the context of rapid urban transformation, which is disrupting communities and established order, it may not be enough merely to hope for inclusive societies,” said Nisa Mammon, a professional planner with NM & Associates Planners and Designers. “Academia should engage in inclusive development projects.”

For example, a mutually beneficial response would be to recraft the student-protest narrative to support local development and build new social and spatial centralities in city cores. In South Africa, such action must entail grasping some thorny issues, including the question of land that, in large part, continues to determine who controls and benefits from city spaces and how social reproduction takes place within them.

Despite some political rhetoric to the contrary, government approaches tend to support competitive land markets and the economic interests of developers rather than more socially oriented objectives. In campus neighbourhoods, this can quickly lead to gentrification.

But universities working with municipalities could promote a more inclusive approach by using their clout as major owners of land and property to integrate students more fully into their cities.

Blurring the physical edges between university and public spaces can also create new opportunities to partner on inclusive urban development.

South Africa’s universities are well positioned to assume proactive roles in their cities and regions, and could learn from the experiences of higher education institutions in other countries that have embraced the roles of place-makers, engines of innovation and economic development, and centres of knowledge production, which seek to inform local decision- and policy-making.

At the same time, there is a need to be realistic. It was noted that the ability of universities to establish new urban socioeconomic and cultural trajectories is limited by both institutional and financial constraints.

To foster effective engagement between universities and cities, several bureaucratic obstacles must be overcome.

Universities and cities tend to speak different languages in pursuit of their goals, even when these may be complementary. It can also be difficult to identify counterparts in their parallel bureaucracies.

In the absence of city-university engagement in the production of urban knowledge, the scientific literacy of those leading municipal policy-making and the political literacy of academic researchers working in relative isolation may be limited, perpetuating a system in which expertise remains incomplete and fragmented.

Participants at the workshop called for the staff of higher education and municipal bodies to collaborate with local communities to pool resources, share knowledge and break down a culture of non-co-operation and mistrust.

Opening the potential of urban universities in South Africa necessitates fostering and institutionalising a better understanding of urbanisation among and between academics, municipal officials and urban residents themselves.

The power to produce increased change lies in building capacity within and across academia, city governments and local communities, powered by new forms of urban networking and a commitment to inclusive and sustainable urban development.

Mark Paterson is a senior journalist and communications consultant with a range of nongovernmental, government and academic organisations. Dr Jean-Paul Addie is an assistant professor at the Urban Studies Institute of the Georgia State University in the United States. Professor Leslie Bank is the deputy executive director of the economic performance and development unit of the HSRC and co-editor of Anchored in Place: Rethinking Universities and Development in South Africa (African Minds).