University leaders from around African met in Johannesburg last week at the African Universities Summit and talked about say the hard job of educating the continent’s young people, and what might be done to achieve greater success in future.

The role of universities in driving economic growth is widely known and was canvassed at the summit. But something very valuable, yet often overlooked, is the pivotal role they play at the core of the economic infrastructure and activity of Africa’s cities and towns.

This is most apparent when a university “sets up shop” in a rural area.

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.

Inter-ethnic marriage

Farming communities in the area are benefitting from selling their vegetables and milk to the market provided by the university, piped water is available to the community courtesy of the university, telecommunication and banking services have improved and more schools and health centres have also been constructed. It’s even helped foster inter-ethnic relations as the intercultural interaction at the university has also led to more intermarriage among the university fraternity.

The accelerated development of an area by a university can also be seen in Egypt, in the case of the American University in Cairo (AUC), but this case also serves as a reminder on the benefits of cooperative urban planning.

In 2008, AUC officially inaugurated AUC New Cairo, a new 260-acre suburban campus in New Cairo, a satellite city 45 minutes away from the downtown campus. The campus, designed to serve a student population of 7,000, has the capacity for high community development but it is also a profitable solution to congestion and overcrowding in one of the world’s largest and most polluted cities. The central Tahrir Square campus was taking up about eight acres of space, and while part of it will remain, the move will give the city space to breathe whilst New Cairo’s population is expected to grow to 4 million people by 2020.

Urban renewal

According to David Hornsby, a senior lecturer in international relations and assistant dean of humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), South Africa, universities can also drive urban renewal. Often located in city centres, they own significant and valuable real estate and so can be crucial to this process.

One example is the University of Wits which is partnering with the city and private enterprises to redevelop buildings for student and staff accommodation in Braamfontein, a downtown district.

“By creating housing in this area, the university and its private and public sector partners are contributing to the revitalisation of a city neighbourhood that has been depressed for over 20 years. This will open up opportunities for further economic development as small and medium enterprises set up shop to cater to the university staff and students living and working in this area.”

Employment is an important university function. According to the Council on Higher Education (CHE), an independent South African statutory body, in 2011 South African universities employed about 50,000 permanent and temporary faculty members. That number will have risen considerably by now.

Colossal gains

Despite this, all too often the role universities play in Africa’s cities is too often forgotten or viewed as irrelevant with these institutions rarely considered part of an urban community. As a result, policies and legislative frameworks governing urban development will exclude the universities even though the potential gains are colossal.

To see just how big this can get, take a look at the impact of higher education on the UK’s economy between 2011 – 2012. It generated over £73 billion of output (about $113 billion), contributed 2.8% of UK GDP and generated significant employment opportunities across the economy, accounting for 2.7% of all UK employment – equivalent to 757,268 full-time jobs.

The study also found that higher education generated more output than many other sectors, including “advertising and market research, legal services, computer manufacturing, basic pharmaceuticals, and air transport. [That] universities also generate more GDP per unit of expenditure than many other sectors including health, public administration, and construction.

Given these enormous gains, it’s clear that African universities can be crucial partners as cities expand and transform. And as Africa moves into a time where higher education on the continent is being revitalised, governments should take advantage of this low hanging fruit.


This article is published in collaboration with Mail & Guardian Africa. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Samantha Spooner is a Editor/Researcher/Writer for Mail & Guardian Africa. 

Image: A woman reads a book at her open air book store in Skopje April 24, 2014. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski