By Dr Jo Beall

16 September 2016 - 16:45

Tianjin in China
'By 2025, it will be common to find cities with economies the size of countries.' Photo of Tianjin ©

Ken Marshall, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

The British Council's Dr Jo Beall explains the relationship between cities and universities, why it is important, and how it is changing.

Cities are more important than ever before

For the first time in history, most people live in cities. Industrialised countries have been predominantly urban for decades. But today, low- and middle-income countries are responsible for the trend, particularly in Africa and Asia.

In fact, cities are growing so quickly that some have overtaken entire nations in economic scale and importance. By 2025, it will be common to find previously little-known cities with economies the size of countries. Take Tianjin in China: in 2010 it had a GDP of $130 billion, about the same size as Stockholm. In 2025, it is estimated that this Chinese city will have a GDP of $625 billion, roughly that of all of Sweden.

What is the secret to the success of these world cities? Their economies are based largely on service industries, which depend on a knowledgeable, skilled workforce and reliable technology. These, in turn, tend to come from universities and colleges, largely within city boundaries.

London itself is a good example of the mutually reinforcing relationship between cities and universities. The capital has more than 40 higher education institutions and more than 400,000 students. That is one of the most intense concentrations of universities and colleges in the world, and it is part of what makes the city so attractive. In turn, the cultural and political buzz of the UK’s capital city adds to its institutions' appeal. It's a virtuous circle that's seen not just in London, but between universities and cities globally.

Universities and cities have a long history

For hundreds of years, universities have been deeply bonded to the cities where they are based. Often, this relationship has been for economic reasons. In medieval Europe, guilds and trade associations based in cities played a critical role in establishing universities.

Later, the industrial revolution played a part. During the 19th century, the UK's burgeoning urban centres, like Manchester and Birmingham, set up colleges to meet demand for workers with professional and technical skills. Many of these colleges later became universities during the civic university movement in the UK, which concentrated on teaching skills like engineering, a new degree that was vitally important during a time when manufacturing and building were among the top industries. This was followed by waves of ‘redbrick’ university building, a term used to describe new institutions founded in the UK's major industrial cities. There are parallels in Germany, where technical colleges and universities were set up as the country's urban industrial centres grew.

As societies become less rural, so do universities

Of course, not all universities are linked to cities. Many have a strong connection to rural areas. But historically, they were often built there to meet the needs of a more rural-based economy. In the US, for example, the Land Grant universities, such as Rutgers, Kansas State, and even Yale, were founded specifically to support what was then a mostly agrarian society. The federal government gave funds to states so that they could endow universities to teach practical agriculture, science and other subjects.

In the 20th century, many newly independent and developing countries built universities in rural areas, with curricula centred on agrarian development. This made sense for economies that were still largely agricultural. But today, that picture is changing.

Universities contribute to a city's economy, but something is changing in that relationship

We see from history that universities and colleges' contribution to local economic development is nothing new. Higher education institutions also play a big role in cities' arts, culture and society. Many institutions take very seriously their responsibility as civic actors, and take part in many local community initiatives. They may take part in economic development, support local schools, and offer research and other services, such as opening up their libraries. Universities and colleges often set the social, cultural and intellectual tone of cities and towns, making them more international, lively places.

But globalisation is changing the game. Today's knowledge economies tend to be in cities. Their higher education institutions are seen as vital contributors and active partners in boosting their economies, to make them as globally competitive as possible. This constitutes a significant broadening of what has always been expected of universities and colleges, beyond their traditional missions of teaching and research. 

Take Bristol, for example. The city has two big universities, the University of Bristol, and UWE Bristol, the University of the West of England. Both institutions work with city government and the private sector in what has been called a ‘triple helix’, a mutually beneficial partnership between academia, government and business. The universities produce skilled graduates and provide professional expertise, research and innovation. These feed into the city's aerospace, finance and media industries, as well as the supporting social sector and other services. In return, government and private capital give them support and incentives to carry out useful research and attract bright students who may stay after graduation and become part of the local skilled labour force.

Cities and universities, academics and government officials, equally share an interest in making these students' time away from home enjoyable, so in the future they remember fondly their host institution, teachers, fellow researchers and the city (and therefore may wish to return and invest in the place in some way).

But universities and cities don't always share the same goals

However, the relationship between ‘town and gown’ can be fraught. Both universities and cities are multifaceted in nature and ambition, and may have competing interests. As urban geographer Jean-Paul Addie writes in a recent research brief, ‘[s]ometimes their strategic goals align. Sometimes they do not.’

To give an example: both cities and institutions want a conducive, welcoming environment for students. But real estate or so-called 'not in my back yard' interests might balk at plans to, say, build a new hall of residence, as indeed they might in the face of efforts to develop science parks and the like. Similarly, Addie says, ‘there is nothing inherently progressive about the university as an urban actor’. Higher education institutions can be powerful and self-serving local developers.

Globalisation may draw universities' focus away from the cities where they are based

Can an institution have a traditional sense of civic responsibility and still outmatch global competition? Regional development expert John Goddard thinks so. This professor emeritus at Newcastle University has sought to ‘reinvent’ the 19th century British civic university model for a global context. He envisions a university with an international outlook, yet also 'strongly connected to people and to place', focusing on public good in the city in which it is based.

However, the impact of global urbanisation may strain rather than cement city-university relations, and test institutions' civic goals. The arrival of entrepreneurial universities, which respond to competitive international demand, may tempt universities to turn away from a sense of social responsibility.

Universities are primarily responsible to their students

Higher education institutions don't just have a responsibility to the cities where they are based. They also have a responsibility to their students, who must be equipped with the professional competence and education to spread their wings beyond the city after graduation. So it is important that expectations are realistic. Universities and colleges hold mandates and serve communities that do not always neatly map on to local urban priorities. As such, the relationship will always be in flux.

Where does this leave us? Universities are institutions that have origins a thousand years old - older than most countries and many cities, and far older than the joint-stock company. Yet today they are more relevant than ever to economic prosperity and the development of new ideas. They thrive in cities, and cities need them if they are in turn to succeed. It will be interesting to see how this long-term relationship develops in the future.

Dr Jo Beall is the British Council's Director, Education and Society.

Discuss the international opportunities and challenges of the changing relationship between cities and universities at Going Global, the British Council's annual international higher education conference. 

You might also be interested in: