Inclusive prosperity is what engaged universities should be prioritising; Private-public funding partnerships should enhance sustainable infrastructure development

18-10-21 USAf 0 comment

An engaged university actively involves staff, students and members of its surrounding community and uses their feedback and expertise to shape the institution’s engagement strategy and its delivery.

“Higher education institutions across the world are debating as to how they can be responsive to societal needs and the myriad environmental challenges that are confronting us through climate change and through a rapidly growing world population,” says Professor Heather Nel, director of Institutional Planning at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha.

“We have developed and developing economies but even in the developed economies, the inequality often mitigates against inclusive growth and inclusive prosperity and the haves get richer while the have-nots are often left behind. We need to promote inclusive prosperity and one way is by exploring various partnerships with other entities.”

Professor Nel (right) was speaking about Public-private Partnerships for University Infrastructure Funding at Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) 2nd Higher Education Conference, concluded recently in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education (CHE). The overall theme of this conference was The Engaged University.

What informs sustainability in the higher education sector and how can public-private partnerships (PPP) become involved?

“A traditional model of sustainability only looks at people and profit but I think in the higher education sector, it’s also important to change the focus from profit to inclusive prosperity, focused on fostering an environment in which students, staff and the surrounding communities can coexist in harmony. We need to prioritise people – and end poverty, hunger and inequality – while also ensuring that that we protect the planet which is coming under increasing threat through the impact of people on the global environment,” she told delegates.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests. – The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as referenced in Professor Nel’s presentation (

Universities and higher education institutions are informed globally by frameworks such as the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want and, on a national level, by the 2030 National Development Plan.

All three frameworks are ambitious in terms of the targets they seek for sustainability into the future. Public-private partnerships will be needed if South Africa is to achieve sustainable infrastructure development, particularly in the higher education sector.

Professor Nel said many opportunities could be leveraged from PPP opportunities although there were some inherent risks.

“Public-private partnerships can be implemented across a wide range of different areas or functionalities that universities are usually responsible for ranging from student housing through to academic facilities; shared services; sports, arts and culture facilities as well as, very importantly, energy and water security.

Agenda 2063 is Africa’s blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future. It is the continent’s strategic framework that aims to deliver on its goal for inclusive and sustainable development and is a concrete manifestation of the pan-African drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress and collective prosperity pursued under Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance.Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want as referenced in Professor Nel’s presentation

“The Nelson Mandela University is in a region (the Eastern Cape) that is drought stricken and we can’t mitigate against the risk of drought so we have to be in partnerships with business, government and civil society in our province to ensure that risk is diminished and doesn’t impact the academic budget.”

She explained why universities would look to partner with the public sector given that they are public entities.

It takes funding to maintain quality

“We are facing increasing pressure to provide high quality, affordable education to students in a context where the national fiscus is under pressure. Student fees are tightly regulated for good and obvious reasons but, at the same time, the demands from students and prospective students are increasing all the time.

“Additional demands on expenditure include deferred facility maintenance needs and increasing costs relating to new technologies and programmes. Reductions in public funding support and concerns about overall affordability create substantial budget challenges and universities are seeking creative ways to meet the often-competing needs and demands of various shareholders,” she continued.

“The pressure to compete for talent is increasing, driving an additional need for investment in a differentiated living, learning and work experience which includes state-of-the-art facilities and infrastructure.”

The National Development Plan aims to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030. According to the plan, South Africa can realise these goals by drawing on the energies of its people, growing an inclusive economy, building capabilities, enhancing the capacity of the state, and promoting leadership and partnerships throughout society. – The National Development Plan 2030 as referenced in Professor Nel’s presentation (

The Department of Public Works has released a draft form of the proposed National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) for 2050 for comment and is another point of departure for public universities to have a look to scale up infrastructure delivery but also to utilise system infrastructure more efficiently.

“NIP alludes to the fact that infrastructure development is a major factor in securing long term economic and social goals such as reducing inequality, job creation and transformation. Significant emphasis in NIP 2050 is on public-private cooperation in the delivery of public infrastructure.”

There are pros and cons to public-private cooperation, she admitted.


  • Good value for money and cost efficiency
  • Expedites the construction process
  • The university can respond more quickly and with more flexibility to market demands
  • It enables the university to remain focused on its core mission
  • It gives the university access to private sector expertise and latest design trends


  • A potential mismatch between public good and profit margins
  • The drive for profit and speed could result in cost-saving measures that compromise quality
  • Depending on the partnership model and agreement, the university may have limited input and/or control
  • Expertise and experience are required to manage the complexity of public-private contracts.

Professor Nel explained that the National Treasury has set up a specialised unit which guides government departments wishing to enter into such partnerships on the “how”: “It’s not something that universities can just enter into without careful consideration of the kinds of capacity that’s needed to oversee such a partnership; and also ensure that ultimately its strategic objectives and priorities are met through the partnership. Part of the feasibility would also be to explore if the project provides value-for-money.

“What’s important is safeguarding citizens’ welfare and sustainable development and stewardship. Universities comprise staff, students and the surrounding communities. We would have to examine whether a proposed partnership is of benefit to all these people as well as look at the environmental considerations.

“The framework the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is topical because it doesn’t only focus on the prosperity dimension; it’s all the facets that make up the bottom line. A wide variety of factors must be assessed including political, legal and environmental issues. Many countries around the world are planning to reach 100 percent renewable energy use by 2050. Research shows that PPPs are better suited for economic infrastructures such as electricity, where better quality infrastructure can reduce operational costs and improve service levels.”

In this breakaway session of USAf’s Funding Strategy Group, Professor Nel spoke alongside Professor Ron Watermeyer, Adjunct Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, who shared insights into minimising risks in infrastructure management in the post-CoViD world. Two other speakers also contributed to the Funding for Infrastructure Development session from a different angle: Financing Technology Infrastructure In Higher Education.

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.