More people needed

Issues facing universities are often shared by the city they are in

Today’s Economist has an article on the University of Oxford’s property development plans – in particular, building new housing.

Homes in Oxford are among the least affordable in Britain. The housing pinch is keenly felt by postdoctoral researchers, 4,500 of whom work in Oxford on short-term contracts with unspectacular pay. The university realised that these academic serfs, who form the backbone of its intellectual project, were spending huge amounts of their income on rent and that if it wanted to remain competitive it would have to find them more places to live.

Many UK cities outside of London have a shortage of skilled workers (and London too has skills shortages in particular areas). Cities and universities are hungry for more people. Infrastructural weaknesses – from dodgy travel connections to a lack of quality and affordable housing – can act as bottlenecks to future growth and obstacles to attracting talented people. The issues facing universities are often shared by the city they are in.

Many European cities have ambitious growth plans. Some want to revitalise particular districts, others recognise they need another 200,000 people to become truly competitive. Where countries have targets in place to, for example, double the number of international students, cities and universities need to work together to accommodate new arrivals. I’ll be presenting new research on how universities and cities are working together on internationalisation, including addressing shared infrastructure challenges, at Going Global in May this year in London.

Four reasons to look at universities and urbanism in Ghana

Universities meet education and skills needs, but are also local development actors in their own right. In Ghana they can play an important role in both

Ghana faces a set of challenges similar to many emerging nations…

Ghana is an ‘African Lion’: a fast-growing economy, falling levels of vulnerable employment and rising productive employment led to Ghana becoming a lower-middle income country in 2007. However, there are skills gaps in the areas of medicine and health, engineering and technical skills, limited job opportunities in the formal sector for those leaving university, and the proportion of the labour force leaving tertiary education rose just 2 percent to 5.4 percent from 1992 to 2013.

…including the transition to a ‘knowledge economy’

In a paper submitted to the African Center for Economic Transformation, Baah-Boateng and Baffour-Awuah lament the gap that opened in per capita income between Ghana and South Korea from 1950 – when incomes were broadly similar – to today, when South Korea’s output is six times higher. They cite a World Bank paper that suggests ‘at least half of the difference is due to South Korea’s success in acquiring and using knowledge’. Their paper finishes with a strong set of policy recommendations (that are applicable nearly anywhere in the world), including the participation of industry in curriculum design, more internships during courses, placing university staff in industry, and government intervention to subside expensive technical courses at public universities.1

As I’ve noted before, creating better jobs requires making difficult decisions in education policy to match labour market demand.

Ghana

Ghana is a case study of global urbanisation…

In 2015 51.9 percent of Ghana’s population lived in urban areas, broadly similar to 54 percent globally in 2014. Ghana’s urban population will reach 72.3 percent by 2050, in line with 70 percent globally. Urbanisation is moving much faster than planning.

…which will bring challenges universities can help solve

UN Habitat recommends government collaboration with universities in Ghana to improve planning and to address sustainable urban planning principles. Accra, for example, is at risk of flooding and – as Rotterdam has demonstrated – universities can help city planners to simultaneously prepare against disasters and create a better place to live and work.

In the Greater Accra region, 40 kilometres from the capital, the new urban area of Ningo-Prampram is rapidly growing. Urban strategies stress the ‘very limited timeframe to avoid unplanned sprawl and transform Ningo-Prampram into a thriving and prosperous compact, connected, socially inclusive and resilient city, which would be a sustainable development example for the country of Ghana and for the region as a whole’. A ‘university city’ in the northeast would offer ‘residential areas and services for students, professors and researchers, developing innovative agriculture and forestry processes that are tested in the fertile central park and the northern irrigation lands, improving crop production and fostering food security’. This is an excellent example of the campus working with the city to test new ideas before rolling them out further – seen elsewhere in the form of smart campuses.

Photos: Cape Coast and Ghana on Flickr


  1. Although there are objections from within Ghana’s universities to relying on the taxpayer for funding. 

Brain drain and mobile talent: where international development and higher education overlap

Efforts to improve retention or to attract skilled people will fail if the place itself isn’t an attractive destination to live and work

Development practitioners call it brain drain. In higher education it’s called graduate retention. In the UK difficulties in retaining graduates in most cities outside of London is an obstacle to rebalancing the economy – a recent study found 15 graduates leave Yorkshire for London for every one moving the other way. In development-speak, brain drain from one country to another is traditionally seen as leading to a ‘human capital’ deficit in the migrant’s home country.

In some cases, an exodus of skilled workers has been encouraged. Devash Kapur explains how Zimbabwe, under the leadership of Robert Mugabe, has encouraged migration of ‘disgruntled groups’ to maintain authoritarian rule. Much of the Zimbabwean middle class, having the financial means to migrate, has fled to South Africa. Such migration benefits Mugabe, who maintains power and minimises opposition, whilst Zimbabwe receives remittances from the diaspora in South Africa, and South Africa benefits from skilled workers (in particular demand as many highly trained South Africans in turn have emigrated elsewhere).

Others such as Easterly and Nyarko argue that there could be some upsides to brain drain. A few examples:

The migrants themselves are better off, by revealed preference since migration is voluntary.

The migrants may send remittances back to boost the incomes of those left behind.

The migrants may have a positive effect on politics or institutions from abroad.

The migrants may facilitate trading networks that increase source-country exports to the destination country.

I admire work that challenges conventional thinking, and I think most of this analysis holds up at both the level of the individual, and at a macro or national level. What’s missing is the gap in-between: the impact on those places beyond the capital city, the ‘second tier’ cities, the towns and rural areas who lose their skilled workers and human capital. The retention of skilled workers in towns and cities outside the capital allows these places to become sustainable generators of their own human capital, training and educating the next generation who will work and study there, and in turn help that place to grow and to prosper. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Another argument worth exploring from Easterly and Nyarko is this one:

The migrants may return home permanently or temporarily, bringing back technology.

If we substitute ‘technology’ for ‘skills’ (and other assets like networks and experience of other systems and cultures), similar arguments are made for higher education in the UK. Graduates move to London for their first job after graduating, but return to their home town – perhaps to start a family, or buy a house – for their second, third or fourth job. The graduates return more ‘valuable’ than they left, and the town benefits. Similarly, students studying abroad will return to opportunities at home, as seen in Asia. There is a ‘boomerang’ effect, with short-term investments giving medium-term returns.

There’s been some recent work on the role universities can play in retaining skilled graduates, and to help areas retain the skills and knowledge that are needed locally. About 18 months ago the City Growth Commission looked at the role of universities in ‘metro areas’. One recommendation proposed ‘golden handcuffs’ to retain graduates through monetary or other incentives. Another – and I think more promising – recommendation was to establish a graduate clearing scheme to funnel good-but-unsuccessful job applications to large graduate recruiters towards small enterprises. And last month, the Government Office for Science looked at graduate mobility, drawing on five case studies of excellent work by universities fostering entrepreneurship, matching supply and demand, working with SMEs, and using data to improve retention.

Ultimately, efforts to improve retention or to attract skilled people from elsewhere will fail if the place itself isn’t an attractive destination to live and work. Universities clearly play a role here too. Work by KPMG describes ‘Magnet Cities’ that attract the young wealth creators of tomorrow, and in turn create an air of energy and excitement about a place. Several of the examples highlight the role of universities. The Government Office for Science report above talks about the importance of ‘place attractiveness’. A recent book, ‘The Smartest Places on Earth’, argues that depleted industrial centres in the US and Europe are reinventing themselves, with the help of universities, as innovation centres that can solve the problems of the future.

Migration is, of course, highly complex, with large cities also suffering from talent deficits in particular areas, masked by overall trends in movement. In London, creative experts are leaving for more affordable cities. Some commentators encourage the term ‘brain circulation’ to reflect this. Perhaps, above all else, mobility should be prioritised – it shouldn’t matter whether a graduate remains in his or her town after graduating, but rather that the town attracts those people with the skills needed for its development, regardless of where they are from.