Is higher education fit for the global urban era?

Our era of ‘global urbanization’ — one where the majority of the world’s population now lives in ‘urban’ areas – raises some interesting opportunities and challenges for higher education systems and institutions. This issue came to mind today when Roger Keil (Professor and Director, The City Institute at York University) tweeted a link to this story (‘How Cities Grow: Dispersion, not Densification‘) by Wendell Cox.

What Cox, Keil, Koolhaas, Kotkin, McGee, Sudjic, and many other urban analysts are pointing out is that we are seeing not just the growth of the proportion of the world’s population living in cities, but also the emergence of new spatial patterns and orders; ones associated with more dispersed and therefore less dense concentrations of people than in older (denser) ‘urban’ areas.

This emerging pattern is associated with terms like extended metropolitan regions, exurbs, edge city, borderless cities, megapolitan areas, megalopolis, the ‘100 Mile City,’ and the like. There are some important differences between these terms and their origins (some of which go back many decades), but for the purposes of this blog entry we’ll leave the differences to the side.

Here are a few graphics to flag some dimensions of the global urban era. Graphic 1 is from UN Habitat’s Global Report on Human Settlements 2011 (p. 3), graphic 2 is from, and graphic 3 is from UN Habitat’s State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011:

And here are a few comments, from Cox’s piece in newgeography, on the dispersal dimension of urbanization:

Analysts occasionally note that urban areas (“cities”) are becoming larger and denser. This is only half right. It is true that most of the world’s urban areas are becoming larger, with megacities like Delhi, Jakarta, Shanghai, Beijing and Manila adding more than five million people in the last decade and most other urban areas are growing, but not as fast.

Understanding Urban Areas: However almost without exception, urban areas are getting less dense. ….

1960-1990 Data: Historical urban population density is not readily available. Kenworthy and Laube were pioneers in this area, publishing estimates from 1960 to 1990 for a number of urban areas. That data indicates density losses in the more than urban areas for which they were able to develop comparable data. The world average decline was 20 percent, ranging from 15 percent in the United States to 29 percent in Europe and 33 percent in Australia. While Tokyo was doubling in population, its population density was dropping 17 percent between 1960 and 1990. While Zurich was adding 21 percent to its population, it was becoming 13 percent less dense.

Recent Data: The dispersion continues, which is indicated by these high-income world cases:

  • Today, the ville de Paris has 700,000 fewer people than at its peak, and inner London (generally the former London County Council area) has lost more than 1,500,000 people since its peak. All growth has been in lower density suburban areas in both the London and Paris urban areas.
  • In the United States, urban areas with more than 1,000,000 population more than doubled in population from 1950 to 2000 (2010 data not yet available), while the population density dropped by nearly one-third. Detailed analysis indicates that this trend has continued over the past decade in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Seattle, St. Louis and other major US urban areas.
  • The dense core city of Seoul has been losing population and all growth has been in the suburbs, which are lower density.
  • The dense urban core of Milan has experience substantial population losses, while the less dense suburbs have captured all the growth.

Dispersion is not limited to high income urban areas, with declining densities in evidence across lower and middle income nations as well. For example:

  • Nearly all of the growth in Jakarta has been in the suburbs for the last 20 years, while the core has gained little in population. The net effect is a less dense, but much larger urban area, because the suburbs are not as dense.
  • Nearly all of the growth for 30 years in Manila has been in the suburbs, while the core city. Again, the urban area has become much larger, but much less dense because the suburbs are much less dense.
  • The dense core of Shanghai has lost population and all growth has been in the suburbs, which are lower density.
  • The population in the dense core of Beijing has nearly stopped growing, with nearly all population in the suburbs, which are lower density.
  • The core of Mumbai has lost population in two of the last three census periods, while all growth has been in the suburbs, which are lower density.
  • The urban core of Mexico City has been declining in population since 1960 and all of the growth has been in the suburbs, which are less dense.
  • The dense core city of Buenos Aires has fewer people today than in 1947, while at least 8 million people have been added to nearly 1,000 square miles of lower density suburbs.

Urban growth continues to be overwhelmingly in less dense suburban areas, rather than in the more dense urban cores, and as a result even as urban areas grow, they become less dense. This is how cities grow.

Now, we have seen the growth of tertiary enrollment at the same time that we have seen the emergence of the era of global urbanization.  The numbers evident below (in a graphic from p. 11 of UNESCO’s Global Education Digest 2009) also point to the rapid growth of enrollment numbers and levels outside of the West, albeit unevenly. I don’t have the data available about the proportion of these students enrolled in tertiary institutions located in ‘urban’ areas, but it would be safe to assume they are in the majority.

The questions I’d like to raise are these:

  1. Can and should the core ideas associated with the sociospatial structure of the university (including proximity; a unified administrative structure; substantial in-situ infrastructure investment; a primary (and for most, singular) office for faculty & staff; stable classroom locations for courses throughout a term) hold firm while the sociospatial structure of societies around the world is spreading horizontally across an increasing scale?
  2. Can we carry on assuming that people should/will come to a campus to receive all or a majority of their formal higher education? Or should higher education funders and providers progressively adjust institutional infrastructures, pedagogical practices, and broad ways of operating, to better serve people IN PLACES, versus drawing people to A PLACE?
  3. Do the locations of branch campuses that have been established in fast changing world regions (e.g., East Asia, the Gulf) reflect the distortion-creating draw of state-provided subsidies, or the potent (albeit unrealized) demands of qualified students scattered across much space within these regions? Does a base deep in the heart of global urbanization (e.g., coastal China, as evident above in graphic 2) offer unprecedented opportunities to reach humankind like never before?

On these points, I can’t help but think that the rise of the on-line for-profit higher education providers (e.g., Laureate International Universities), or the providers with smaller offices scattered through metropoli around the world (and indeed across parts of some metropolitan regions), reflect not just their ability to identify and serve new demographic segments of society, but perhaps in ways that also reflect the emerging new geographies we see in this era of global urbanization. In other words perhaps these higher education providers are less fixed in space since fixity is not one of their core objectives. I’m not suggesting that this stance is necessarily desirable, but it is worth thinking about carefully.

It is also worth questioning if traditional providers of higher education are built for the much more stretched out spatial era emerging in almost all of our world regions. And if not, what are the options — technological, organizational, etc. — for addressing a provider-society disconnect that will surely deepen over time?

Kris Olds

38 thoughts on “Is higher education fit for the global urban era?

  1. As schools build up their distance and digital learning platforms they can take an interim position by restructuring their daily and yearly calendars. Urban jobs require different sets of workers on a 24-hour schedule, with much service and labor work performed outside the traditional 9-5 work day. Offering students the option of early morning or late evening access to instructors can boost enrollment.

  2. Pingback: A longer school day and year for urban higher ed? | Jason Malikow

  3. Pingback: Is higher education fit for the global urban era? | CU News

  4. This is an incredible idea; should education follow the movement of people, not only in location but in structure? The idea of a more fluid, malleable academic experience is interesting; I think the challenges it brings from the schools’ pers

  5. (sorry) I think the challenges it brings from the schools’ perspective rivals the challenges’ from a students’ vantage point. For students, it is a step beyond “hands-on” experience, and can even be looked at as a way of instilling character-education as well. It would require much more than punctuality in order to complete the idea you bring about in the second point. The idea of educators designing their structure according to their demographic? Revolutionary.

  6. Some comments on this very interesting blogpost:

    -In contrast to the trend of lower density residential settlements, my research on campuses in Europe suggests a “reurbanisation” of campuses, at least in Europe. Greenfield campuses at suburban locations are a product of the 20th century; new campuses, science parks and other knowledge hotspots are now predominatly built in lively, mixed urban areas with a strong identity. This fits the preferences of knowledge workers (see for some publications).

    -Maybe a disticntion should be made between the spatial preferences of different student groups: the needs of fulltime students may differ radically from part-time students with a job and/or a family. In The Netherlands, many younger ‘fulltime’ students prefer to come to dense, central places and escape the suburb. The Amsterdam University of Applied Science opened a branch location in Almere, a newtown, but had to close it after a few years.

    -Another aspect is this: Institutes of higher education can be a catalyst for area development, as they bring livelyness and purchasing power into an area. There are many examples in Europe on how branches of educational institutes help to reviltalise deprived urban neighborhoods. What about their potential contribution to less dense areas? I wonder if there are any examples.

  7. “The idea of educators designing their structure according to their demographic?”

    Differentiation is something that has been for a long time. Educators do this from elementary levels all the way through HS.

  8. The second question you raised is interesting. Is it better to serve people IN PLACES, versus drawing people to A PLACE. I believe it is more important to serve them in places, instead of a place. Provide access to education for everyone no matter where they are located.

  9. Hello
    I’m glad I stumbled upon your post here. I’m presently enrolled in an online program due to serious health concerns and physical limitations with mobility. The traditional classroom model was not appealing due to health concerns and in many ways it was helpful to have the university ‘come to me’. In the midst of this humbling experience I’ve thought about the availability of higher education to individuals around the globe who are not centrally located near university centers and coming in closer proximity of the centers isn’t possible (or would create difficulty). I’ve heard of satelite centers for some universities but am unsure if this pattern is consistent within worldwide urban areas.

    Regards everyone

  10. Hey, I to have health problems .I am happy to be taking a class online. I was hopitalized for 2 days and have gotten behind in some of my work. It is very streeful trying to stay caught up.I will do the best I can.In regards to your comments on satelite centers,I think it would depend on the technology and how advanced the country is.Think about it this way,If the country can not provide the basic needs,I do not see how they could advance in this area.Great idea!


  11. I am sure everyone realizes many factors are going to play into this issue.
    Is the suburbanization we have seen largely based on the cheap supply of oil, as some would suggest, and possibly going to reach structural limits?

    Perhaps many students are not just after “education” but are at a developmental stage where they want to get away from their family of origin and have a different experience of the world – we cannot assume that students want to study from their (often culturally impoverished) low density suburban environment.

    International students want to live walking distance from the campus, and again there are other reasons (e.g., personal, developmental, psychological) beyond getting an education driving the decision to travel to another country for study.

    As a course coordinator at a Brisbane University I do get students wanting online delivery of units but usually this is related to special circumstances. Many students have internalized the popular media images of “university life” that include a good deal of partying and are seeking to participate in that experience. Sure they will spend many hours in the library or at their bedroom desk, but when the laptop lid drops they are looking for social/cultural experiences.

    I have a folder I move around my office with Online Course Development written on the front – the notes I made at an Open Universities forum on online-delivery for counselling and psychology. The idea is there, but it has no support from above – yet.


  12. Hi Eugenia

    Thanks for the ‘food for thought’; it will be interesting to see how educational access continues to evolve in this global era.


  13. As a Walden University student, ironically, Laureate International Universities is referenced as a premier online, for-profit institution having the ability to identify and serve new demographic segments in society. As the writer suggests, certain institutions have captured the concept of bringing the institution to the student rather than the student finding the institution. In reference to the last posed question, there are many postsecondary institutions that are still slow to respond to the merging era of online education. It will be ashamed to become an obsolete college/university because the resources and learning environments are not conducive to a technological savvy generation.

  14. “these higher [online] education providers are less fixed in space since fixity is not one of their core objectives”


    “Perhaps many students are not just after “education” but are at a developmental stage where they want to get away from their family of origin and have a different experience of the world – we cannot assume that students want to study from their (often culturally impoverished) low density suburban environment.”

    I am not really sure they are mutually exclusive. I do value virtual education and the way it is not ‘fixed’ by location like TV is no longer fixed in time. That said, I am concerned that important social development may not happen the same way online.

  15. Distance learning is becoming very popular with people that are looking for ways to continue their educational goals. Being able to study from any location makes its possible to study without leaving your central location. Global education is growing in the 21st century.


  16. Thanks Canj for sharing your experience with distance learning. I too, take online courses, because it is more convenient for me. The technological age has brought about some of the greatest changes to higher education to date. The movement of educational resources and materials from print to digital has made it possible for educators to cultivate students “and simultaneously address all learning styles. “There appears to be a strong positive relationship between using information technology for educational purposes…” (Larid & Kuh, 2005). In order to meet the growing needs of businesses driven by technology, educational institutions must incorporate technology into their instructional practices. The use of technology increases the means in which information is provided, thus enhances the quality of instruction. More specifically, instruction that utilizes technology for professional development enhances student proficiency in technology as it applies to the workplace. (Martin, Strother, Beglau, Bates, Reitzes, & Culp, 2010). The use of technology has multifaceted implications, thereby positively influencing the means, outcomes, and quality of education. Technology engages students globally as well as domestically. Students who are having difficulty getting to class in the traditional manner will have a more opportunity with distance learning.


    Laird, T., & Kuh, G.. (2005). Student Experiences With Information Technology And Their Relationship To Other Aspects Of Student Engagement. Research in Higher Education, 46(2), 211-233. Retrieved May 25, 2011, from ProQuest Central. (Document ID: 2187577171).

    Martin, W., Strother, S., Beglau, M., Bates, L., Reitzes, T., & Culp, K.. (2010). Connecting Instructional Technology Professional Development to Teacher and Student Outcomes. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 43(1), 53-74. Retrieved May 25, 2011, from ProQuest Central. (Document ID: 2134707501).

  17. I think distance learning will make education more affordable because now the overhead i not a cost put into tuition cost. Increased enrollment in distance learning as students see education more affordable than ever before. Now the colleges and universities reach out to us through technology and offers a “home made” degree. People can stay living in their city, get trained and work in the same city in which they live after graduating from college.

  18. Hi Beverly

    Thanks for the informative response and the great references!

    This article has assisted in gaining alternate perspectives. I’d be interested in future research studying the impact of student retention withiin the international and online settings as well as getting more information regarding study/work abroad opportunities for students who are enrolled within locales such as those documented within this article.

    Regards All

  19. I don’t think there will ever be a way to truly substitute the traditional campus experience. Though I do believe that online education is going to be the obvious way of the future, it will come with a price to later generations who will not encounter some of the same healthy and life changing experiences of those who have obtained degrees the traditional way. Online is meant to foster access. One thing the article spoke about many times, was the density drop of some of the most urban areas nationally and internationally. I don’t think the density drop in the urban areas of the US are going to effect the culture of the urban areas. Big cities tend to have in common several characteristics, but at the forefront of those, a quick-paced environment. People in urban areas tend to complain about not having time. Online institutions seem to cater to that. It seems as if the urban areas (no matter the density change) would be the demographic for online institutions based upon the convenience of time.

  20. Taking online courses can be somewhat a challenge if you are not exposed to this kind of learning. I thought this article by Pickett was very informative in regards to taking online courses vs in the classroom.

  21. There is little doubt that much can be obtained from attending a traditional brick and mortar school other than the obvious formal education. However, online learning is an avenue that many non-traditional students can pursue without forfeiting current jobs and family obligations.

  22. Online learning offers education to anyone – anywhere. The flexibility that online learning gives students is valuable based on the catch-up factor alone. Many students have to be able to attend all of their classes to be able to stay caught up in their learning and success of the class. A couple of missed classes can mean a set back, a bad grade, or a lot of extra work to get the course removed from their transcript – if even allowed. While the traditional campus does offer the personal, social experience, the convenience of online learning is most likely more important for students. Not to mention the costs for operating an online learning environment versus the upkeep and management of physical structures and the impact overhead costs can have on tuition.

  23. I am taking an online course through a Laureate University and it serves my educational needs very well. It would be more difficult as an older student to attend classes at a set place and time instead of working on my course work around my schedule. I really enjoy going to a face-to-face class because I enjoy listening to lectures and the interaction with teacher and students. There can be no real replacement of human interaction face-to-face. We have been studying about the different cultures of learning institutions and there is a variety offered depending on what the teacher and student need. Whether you live in an urban or rural area there is a way to recieve a higher education. Our world is continuing to change, so also should education.

  24. This post is a great snapshot of a large subject of controversy in higher education: Global Learning. Within higher education institutions there are multiple cultures that exist, there are two that are in controversy within an institution about this topic. They are the virtual culture and tangible culture. The tangible culture views physical places, objects, and people in high esteem making primacy of place more valuable than virtual space (Bergquist & Pawlak, 2008). Whereas, the virtual culture aims to connect with multiple resources, specifically global, through technology and sometimes partnering with outside agencies or groups (Bergquist & Pawlak, 2008). Both cultures see their ideology as important. Virtual culture brings not only technology and distance learning, but also flexibility and an ability to expand with a chaotic world. In contrast, the tangible culture insists upon “the authenticity of the physical world and the campus that embodies this world” (Bergquist & Pawlak, 2008 p. 245). Although they are opposites in higher education both cultures are necessary even as technology advances. There are many concerns about student social development with online “virtual” learning and concerns about the “tangible” side of education not being adequately accessible. Each line of thought possesses strengths and weaknesses, but together they create, strength, continuity, and an enduring culture.

    Bergquist, W. H., & Pawlak, K. (2008). Engaging the six cultures of the academy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  25. The idea that universities should serve people IN PLACE rather than draw them to a PLACE has many implications and challenges. Would universities opting for the first scenario incur more costs or reduce their overall costs? If the answer is reducing costs, then by choosing to serve people IN PLACE would actually be desirable. For one thing, this idea would greatly reduce costs and therefore improve equitable access to education for those who cannot afford the on campus education. For another, it would greatly improve the global reach of institutions of higher ed. As an online student, I am receiving doctoral education thousands of miles away from where the university is located.
    One of the challenges is the need to innovate and examine new instructional strategies that work online and achieve comparable results to those used in traditional, classroom-based instruction.

  26. Institutions should branch out and meet the people rather than allow the people to meet the institutions. The reason why is simple: Education is not the primary objective of student’s daily lives anymore. Consider the many forms of students in today’s colleges. Many hold jobs and have families which conflicts with them attending the school full time. Branch colleges of major universities are perfect structures allowing students to have Higher Education accessible for them. It is not a question of making Higher Education easy for students, but who to make Higher Education accessible. In the 21st Century, media through internet and global interconnectivity rule the main frame of people’s lives unlike ever before. To remain relevant, Higher Education must meet the people on this same wave link. Make Higher Education accessible.

  27. Troy,

    You make vaild points in your reply. I agree with you; people are already immersed in their daily lives, chockful with all kinds of responsibilities such as child-rearing, job, and family obligations. It is a good idea for higher education institutions to take this into consideration in their future planning.

  28. Troy,
    You do make a great point. I too love the idea of making higher education accessible. Also, even 30 years ago when I was working on my engineering degree, higher education was not my primary goal but a goal I needed to advance in my career. And now, I would not be working on a master program if it were not for distance learning. There are 5-6 colleges in my area and non of them offered the program that was most suited to my needs.

  29. I also think that online learning makes higher education more accessible, however can it be the main factor to why urban areas are becoming less populated?

  30. Seeing that distant education is becoming a huge impact on higher education institutions I think that moving education to places is a smart idea.

  31. A propos, a propos d’Académie Française, ll parait que le brillant libraire Gégé Collard, qui dirige la librairie Griffe Noire, se présente pour devenir académicien .. Je pense que ça donnerait un 2nd élan à l’institution, foi de Saint Maurien. Vous ne trouvez pas

  32. I’ve had a very successful experience with Walden, and I fully believe that colleges should bend with the growth in technology and allow virtual coursework. Commuting is becoming more and more a thing of the past, and education needs to follow suit. I don’t believe, however, that schools should either move into the city or move online. There is still plenty of demand for rural institutions; and virtual and urban campuses certainly have their target demographic. I believe things should stay as they are, but with an increased emphasis on distance learning and technology.

  33. This was a very interesting post as it raised a lot of concern about the traditional and new ways of learning. There are many factors that have caused individuals like myself to complete a degree online. I am unable to puruse a degree in higher educaiton in my homeland because it is not offered and further more to leave my cournty to go to another to pursue education may not be the best decision presesntly. The question that was asked that left me thinking is “to better serve people IN PLACES, versus drawing people to A PLACE?”
    I believe once individuals have the means of being educated online it should be provided. In a case where technology is advancing and traditional brick and mortar schools soon “may” seem null and void, ways of integrating the two should be thought about.


  34. This post brings to the forefront quite a few questions about higher education and the new urbanization era. I grew up in city however I was raised in the suburbs. I have returned to the city often and have spotted the different college and learning institutions. For me, its to much of a city feel for me with the hustle and bustle. I preferred the suburban feel to the campuses on the west coast and most recently I really appreciate the on-line environment. I feel that the same type of education should be available to the student in the urban area, the suburban area and with the on-line environment. What is important is that the student receives the best quality service whether its fact-to-face or online.

  35. I found your post very interesing for a couple of reasons. It’s quite interesting to know that while the population of people living in urban areas is growing, the density is not. I live on Long Island, NY, about 40 minutes from New York City. Perhaps this is why I found that statement quite interesting. Where I live and nearby NYC are very densely populated.
    Secondly, you mention that tertiary enrollment is increasing at the same time as global urbanization. I believe it is also increasing due to the opportunities that colleges and universities offer for distance learning, which for many, makes college education more accessible.

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