Strengthening Urban Engagement of Universities in Asia and Africa

By Professor Michael Osborne, School of Education

Climate change impacts cities all across the globe. Cities are not only dealing with increased risk of flood from rising sea levels, to give just one example. More than half of the world’s population live in urban areas so urban energy use means our cities are also one of the main contributors to climate change. To address sustainable development and climate change challenges it is vital for universities to actively engage with their cities and respond to the issues facing urban communities.

The Strengthening Urban Engagement of Universities in Asia and Africa (SUEUAA) project enhanced the contribution of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in Dar es Salaam, Harare, Duhok, Sanandaj, Manila and Johannesburg to help develop and support more sustainable cities. This international and collaborative research project assessed the extent to which universities can respond to city level demands and identified ways to build and strengthen partnerships with a wider range of urban stakeholders.

Research found that universities generally respond to a variety of different Sustainable Development Goals including zero hunger, no poverty, gender equality and climate action. However, many of these activities have been historically undertaken in isolation, that is, without close collaboration with industry, local government or civil society partners. In most cases researchers identified a lack of appropriate structures and platforms to facilitate dialogue between universities and urban development actors in the search for sustainable solutions for their cities.

Given the positive impact that all universities can have in their cities and diverse communities, SUEUAA devised a set of recommendations to improve university engagement policies and promote urban development partnerships, including:

  • HEIs and city-level actors should work closely to identify, prioritise and target local challenges. A focus on city-level challenges will provide clear guidelines and strategic actions that are relevant to urban communities.
  • Policy documents need to develop crises protocols to support emergency responses. While humanitarian and/or environmental crises cannot be anticipated, universities can contribute to the level of preparedness in cities.
  • University policies should define and operationalise engagement at different scales. Engagement at the level of cities, neighbourhoods, specific communities will be critical for a flexible and effective positioning of universities within their immediate context.
  • Policies that support the engagement role of universities should contribute to building a culture of trust and social commitment.
  • University engagement policies must provide flexibility and allow strategic actions to be updated and revised regularly in light of new demands and needs.

The SUEUAA project also made major contributions towards increased awareness of the importance of better university engagement as well as the establishment of new partnerships with city stakeholders. For example, in Zimbabwe, the exchanges facilitated by the project, led to renewed Memoranda of Agreement between the university and the City of Harare.  In Iraq, the University of Duhok established an innovative research collaboration on the environmental impact of conflict and landmine clearance with the Duhok City Landmine Department. The University of the Philippines began to tailor their extension activities to the needs of vulnerable communities in Manila. In Tanzania SUEUAA was instrumental in promoting closer dialogue between Dar-es Salaam University and the city council which generated a series of new collaboration proposals. Partnerships promoted by the project however were not limited to local government. For example, the University of Kurdistan formed closer links to relief and rescue organisations such as the Iranian Red Crescent and took on an active role in the post-earthquake reconstruction process.

SUEUAA was funded by the British Academy under the Cities and Infrastructure Programme of its Global Challenges Research Fund. Research findings and outputs have been summarised in the SUEUAA publication series available at

First published: 3 March 2022

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