Fostering ‘urban resilience’ in three African capitals: can universities work with city councils to address development challenges?

Last updated: December 2019. Full proposal available on request ( Principal supervisor: Professor Tristan McCowan, UCL Institute of Education.

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Despite widespread research on higher education and development, there is limited analysis of how universities contribute to the development of their immediate surroundings, particularly in sub-Saharan African contexts. My research will examine how ‘flagship’ universities in three African capital cities (Accra, Addis Ababa and Kigali) are working with city councils to address development challenges, and the outcomes of these efforts. It will generate new knowledge on practices of civic engagement and the coordination of development activity between universities and cities.

Infographic summary of PhD study

Flagship universities are often the most prestigious and largest institution in their country, and wield considerable influence (Teferra 2017, p.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 (1) cities as autonomous actors (see, for example, Herrschel & Newman (2017)), (2) the challenges and opportunities of urbanisation (which are especially acute in African cities; see Pieterse & Parnell (2014)) as framed by the Sustainable Development Goals and UN Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, and (3) 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.[1] The recognition that universities in the Global North are being called upon to contribute more to their place and their locality (Pugh et al. 2016; Birch et al. 2013), to engage beyond teaching and research (Nelles & Vorley 2010), to tailor their teaching and research to the area (Goddard et al. 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: How are ‘flagship’ universities in Accra, Addis Ababa and Kigali working with city councils to address development challenges, and what are the outcomes of these efforts?

My sub-questions are:

  1. What is the relationship between the flagship university and city council in three African case study cities: Accra (Ghana), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda)?
  2. To what extent do flagship universities coordinate or participate in development-focused activity at local or regional level, and what is the involvement of the city council?
  3. What is the involvement of flagship universities in city council-led initiatives to address development challenges, including participation in international city networks such as the former 100 Resilient Cities initiative?
  4. What are the outcomes of interaction between flagship universities and cities and any joint activity?

The research questions are designed to generate new knowledge to further our understanding of universities, cities and development. In doing so, the research will need to recognise the complexity of universities and city councils as institutions, and possible contestation between actors within each, throughout. In answering the research questions, my objectives are:

  1. To gauge the effects and outcomes of efforts undertaken by flagship universities and city councils to address development challenges, and the influence of global discourses around development, resilience and higher education on local activity.
  2. To use the knowledge generated to conceptualise drivers, opportunities and obstacles and inform collaboration between universities and councils in other cities.
  3. To contribute to the debate over the role universities can play in development, in particular within their local area.


The study will build on a foundation of a literature review and examination of primary source materials (city development strategies, national education plans, university mission statements and strategies, and evidence of collaboration, networks and partnerships) with an extensive series of semi-structured interviews in Accra, Addis Ababa and Kigali with academics, university leaders and administrative staff from the ‘flagship’ university in each country, and city officials. Approximately thirteen interviews will take place in each city, with an expected split of five with city staff and eight with university staff forming a total of up to 40 interviews. A semi-structured approach offers the opportunity for interviewees to reveal new information and insight and identify areas that I may have missed, whilst covering the major areas of analysis.

Interviews with senior university leaders and city officials will be a major source of data for my research, and this focus on ‘elites’ brings challenges and opportunities. The literature on elite interviews has grown in the past 25 years as the benefits of ‘studying up’ and the particular difficulties experienced have been recognised. I can draw on my professional experience of interviewing city and university leaders in Europe and North America, although my research takes place in a different cultural and political context and the institutions in my three cities are likely to be operating under greater resource constraints. I can draw on previous employment working with African universities at the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the expertise of my academic supervisors, but also the rich literature documenting elite interviews: from Neal (1995) as a PhD researcher, Conti and O’Neil (2016) interviewing officials within complex bureaucracies, and Cochrane (1998) focusing on local elites.

Looking at the phenomenon of university-city relations in more than one city will allow different challenges and issues to emerge, and a comparison of problems faced by universities and by officials in different contexts will allow a more nuanced analysis, and a richer understanding, of the relationship between local places and global discourses around development, resilience and higher education. It may also allow identification of trends affecting other universities and cities.

My case studies are ‘flagship’ universities and city councils within the three African cities of Accra (Ghana), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda). They have been selected for their common features:

  • Each city is home to a flagship university, albeit differently configured in each city: the University of Ghana is located in the Greater Accra Region, the University of Addis Ababa has 12 of its 13 campuses in the city, and the University of Rwanda, a recent amalgamation of seven public higher education institutions, is headquartered in Kigali but has campuses throughout the country. All three are the largest public higher education institutions in their country; the Universities of Ghana and Addis Ababa were formed in 1948 and 1950 respectively and had linkages to the University of London, whereas the University of Rwanda was formed in 2013.
  • They are the capitals of and the largest city within their country, but they are not global ‘megacities’, which are better-studied and often better-resourced. However, they are rapidly growing and effective management of urbanisation is a priority in each city.
  • Each city was a member of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative (in total, nine African cities were members). They are all also members of at least one other major international network of cities focused on sustainability or global challenges (all are members of ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability and Accra and Addis Ababa are members of the C40 Climate Change Leadership Group).
  • Each has a mayor appointed by city council, albeit with differing responsibilities and remits.

There are also notable differences, not least in size: Ethiopia and Addis Ababa have a significantly larger population (and geographic footprint) than Rwanda and Kigali respectively. The three countries have different colonial histories, and these have shaped the higher education sectors in each.

Finally, my PhD is also an opportunity to engage in broader methodological debates such as those on case study research and comparative studies in higher education. Both have passionate advocates and critics whose ideas have already helped me shape my study design, understand common pitfalls, and ensure I maintain a reflexive focus on my relationship to the field of study.


  • Addie, J.-P., 2016. From the urban university to universities in urban society. Regional Studies, 51(7), pp.1089–1099.
  • Bank, L. & Cloete, N., 2018. Anchored in Place, African Minds.
  • Birch, E., Perry, D.C. & Taylor, H.L., Jr, 2013. Universities as anchor institutions. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 17(3), pp.7–15.
  • Bose, S., 2015. Universities and the redevelopment politics of the neoliberal city. Urban Studies, 52(14), pp.2616–2632.
  • Cochrane, A., 1998. Illusions of power: interviewing local elites. Environment and Planning A, 30, pp.2121–2132.
  • Conti, J.A. & O’Neil, M., 2016. Studying power: qualitative methods and the global elite. Qualitative Research, 7(1), pp.63–82.
  • Goddard, J. et al., 2016. The Civic University, Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • Herrschel, T. & Newman, P., 2017. Cities as International Actors, London: Springer.
  • Lebeau, Y., 2008. Universities and social transformation in sub‐Saharan Africa: global rhetoric and local contradictions. Compare, 38(2), pp.139–153.
  • Neal, S., 1995. Researching Powerful People from a Feminist and Anti‐Racist Perspective: a note on gender, collusion and marginality. British Educational Research Journal, 21(4), pp.517–531.
  • Nelles, J. & Vorley, T., 2010. From policy to practice: engaging and embedding the third mission in contemporary universities. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 30(7/8), pp.341–353.
  • Pieterse, E. & Parnell, S.M., 2014. Africa’s Urban Revolution, Zed Books Ltd.
  • Pugh, R. et al., 2016. A step into the unknown: universities and the governance of regional economic development. European Planning Studies, 24(7), pp.1357–1373.
  • Teferra, D., 2017. Flagship Universities in Africa, Springer.
  • Vale, L.J., 2014. The politics of resilient cities: whose resilience and whose city? Building Research & Information, 42(2), pp. 191-201.
  • van Schalkwyk, F. & de Lange, G., 2018. The engaged university and the specificity of place: The case of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Development Southern Africa, 35(5), pp.641–656.

[1] South Africa is one such exception with a recent flurry of relevant work: see, for example, Bank & Cloete (2018) and van Schalkwyk & de Lange (2018). I am in contact with this community following participation in an academic workshop on urban universities in Cape Town in 2018.