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

“Higher Education and Regions: Globally Competitive, Locally Engaged”

The OECD has recently published the report Higher Education and Regions: Globally Competitive, Locally Engaged. Prepared by OECD’s Programme for Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE), this publication builds on two related OECD publications concerned with the role of universities and regional development, namely Response of Higher Education to Regional Needs (1999) and Cities and Regions in the New Learning Economy (2001).


Based on the IMHE’s objective to evaluate and enhance higher education’s contribution to local economic competitiveness in the face of a globalizing knowledge economy, the report synthesizes the experiences of initiatives in 14 regions across 12 countries. As the report writes, the lessons learned draw from various regional projects that had one common goal: “to transform each [higher education institution (HEI)] into an engine for growth” to respond at the local level to the global economic challenge (p. 16).

The report therefore examines and assesses the capacity for universities and colleges to effectively contribute to regional economic development through their multiple dimensions and activities: knowledge creation through research and technology transfer; knowledge transfer through education and human resources development; and, cultural and community development, which they argue can contribute to the conditions in which regional innovation thrives. The project aims to identify the internal and external barriers and constraints that prevent universities from furthering this regional economic agenda, and provides general recommendations for higher education institutions as well as regional and national governments to overcome these obstacles, particularly in terms of governance, management, and capacity building for innovation. The figure embedded in this entry is reflective of the general tenor of the report.

Unlike other recent higher education policy documents that seek to balance the multiple missions of the sector, this report unequivocally frames the purpose of higher education as primarily – if not solely – serving an economic objective. The report identifies and endorses a shift it feels has begun in policy circles and within higher education institutions to move away from national interests and the pursuit of knowledge in favour of engaging with regional economic needs in the face of “global competition.” Yet despite endorsing a regional focus, this report seems to represent renewed interest in comparing the “outcomes” of higher education systems and institutions in terms of international standards of quality, relevance and impact.

Kate Geddie