A ‘local turn’ for Africa’s flagship universities?

A Comparative Case Study of the University of Rwanda and universities in nine African city regions

See also the GitHub repository for this project.

Last updated: December 2020. Full proposal available on request (james.ransom.16@ucl.ac.uk). Principal supervisor: Professor Tristan McCowan, UCL Institute of Education.


Despite widespread research on higher education and development, there is limited analysis of how universities contribute to the development of their immediate and local surroundings, particularly in sub-Saharan African contexts. My research examines the roles and activities of ‘flagship’ universities in addressing development challenges in African city regions. It will generate new knowledge on practices of civic engagement, the challenges and opportunities facing flagship universities in Africa, and the coordination of development activity at the local level.

Flagship universities are often the most prestigious and largest institution in their country, and wield considerable influence (Teferra 2017, 2). They are spaces for shaping public discourse, and are historically linked to advancing national development (Lebeau 2008). I am keen to explore whether flagship universities in my case study cities are developing a local focus alongside their historic national mission, given growing global discourses around, first, cities as autonomous actors (see, for example, Herrschel and Newman (2017)), second, the challenges and opportunities of urbanisation (which are especially acute in African cities; see Parnell and Pieterse (2014)) as framed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals and UN Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, and, third, the notion of ‘resilience’, which shifts the onus of (and responsibility for) tackling development challenges from nations to cities (Vale 2014).

The contribution that universities and, separately, cities can make to global development has become a focus of academic and policy attention, with both universities and cities at risk of being seen as a panacea and saddled with unrealistic expectations. This research will fill a gap between (and critically engage with) two active, but mostly separate, research areas: universities and development, and universities and their local role. This research will be useful to policymakers outside of academia (including officials in city halls and national ministries, but also international donors such as DFID and the World Bank who maintain a higher education focus) by helping them to understand how to effectively work with universities, and it will benefit university staff in understanding and enhancing the role of their institution locally and regionally.

With a few notable exceptions, the literature on universities and place is largely written from a northern perspective, using European or US case studies. The recognition that universities in the Global North are being called upon to contribute more to their place and their locality (Birch, Perry, and Taylor 2013; Pugh et al. 2016), to engage beyond teaching and research (Nelles and Vorley 2010), to tailor their teaching and research to the area (Goddard, Hazelkorn, and Vallance 2016), and to leverage their international connections for local benefit (Addie 2016) needs to also be tested in cities in the Global South. So too does the recognition that universities can inadvertently reproduce local inequalities and undermine community development through their territorial expansion (Bose 2015).

Research questions and aims

My research question is: What is the role of the University of Rwanda in the development of the City of Kigali, and how does this compare with the activity of ‘flagship’ universities in other sub-Saharan African city regions?

My sub-questions are:

  1. How do African flagship universities conceptualise their role in society, and specifically in their city regions, and is this role evolving?
  2. To what extent and how do African flagship universities coordinate or participate in development-focused activity in their city region?
  3. What role does the University of Rwanda play in the City of Kigali, and what is the relationship between the University of Rwanda and the city council?
  4. How does the role of the University of Rwanda in the City of Kigali compare with that of flagship universities in other African city regions, and to what extent are wider discourses and policies shaping the experience of the University of Rwanda and other African flagship universities?

The research questions are designed to generate new knowledge to further our understanding of flagship universities and local development at city region level. In doing so the research will need to recognise the institutional complexity of universities, and the possible contestation, or lack of coordination and awareness, within universities. The same applies for the national and local governance structures that oversee and influence university activity. In answering the research questions, my objectives are:

  1. To revisit and to understand the distinctive contribution of African flagship universities.
  2. To gauge the effects and outcomes of local development efforts undertaken by flagship universities, and the influence of global discourses around development and higher education on local activity.
  3. To use the knowledge generated to conceptualise drivers, opportunities and obstacles and inform the local development efforts of universities and governments in other city regions.
  4. To contribute to the debate over the role universities can play in development, in particular within their local area.