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Intercontinental network

by D+C | E+Z
Living globalisation: Dortmund University and its partner universities in developing countries have been offering SPIRNG, a master programme in regional planning, for more than 20 years. It is successful thanks to its practical orientation. [ By Einhard Schmidt-Kallert ]

In the past two decades, German universities have become more international, and they have aligned themselves better to the needs of students from developing countries. Previously, the curricula of most departments were predominantly geared to the needs of the German labour market. Today, by contrast, there is such a diverse range of postgraduate courses it has become difficult to get an overview. The teaching language is predominantly English, which reflects the reality of life in poor countries.

“SPRING” is one of the longest-standing courses of this type. The acronym stands for Spatial Planning for Regions in Growing Economies, which may seem a little euphemistic at times. It is a postgraduate programme for regional planners from developing countries, which Dortmund University has offered for over 20 years with partner universities in Africa, and also for around 15 years in Asia.

On completion of the two-year programme, students graduate with a M.Sc. in Regional Development Planning and Management. For many years, this was one of the very few Master degree courses offered at German universities, so it was not difficult to adapt to the requirements of the EU-wide Bologna Process (Kreibich, 2005).

Only the first year of study takes place in Dortmund; participants spend the second year at a partner university. This institution takes full responsibility for their part of the course and conducts the final examination in accordance with their rules. The first year of study in Germany tends to be based more on theory and methodology, while the second year has a more practical bias.

Model project

The combination originates from a suggestion made by African colleagues to the Faculty of Spatial Planning at Dortmund more than two decades ago. The idea sounded convincing, so a working group was quickly formed to design the curriculum. Soon afterwards, the new master programme was set up as a model project of the Bund-Länder Commission for Educational Planning and Research Promotion, which is run by the Federal Government and the German states. GTZ (German Technical Cooperation) provided support in setting up technical institutions at the partner universities for 14 years.

SPRING regards professional spatial planners as coordinators and promoters, who help decision-makers and target groups in the field to make responsible planning decisions. A fundamental element of the training is that the local communities should also be involved in the planning along with selected decision makers and representatives from government agencies.

The University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, became the first partner university in 1985. It was a suitable partner because this country was one of the first in Africa to implement a comprehensive policy of state decentralisation.

From the mid-1980s onward, legislative and executive functions in Ghana were taken over by agencies at district level. As a result, regional planners were needed below the national level but above the municipalities. Local decision makers had to be put in a position to identify the specific potential of their region, draft guiding principles for future development and set sectoral and regional priorities accordingly.

Apart from Kumasi University, partner institutions today are the School of Urban and Regional Planning of the University of the Philippines in Manila, the University College of Lands and Architectural Studies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and the Universidad Austral in Valdivia, Chile. Meanwhile, Ghanaian students can also complete the first SPRING year in Kumasi.

From the outset, the basic structure of the first year of study in Dortmund has followed the sequence of an ideal planning process: from situation analysis to programme design and planning through to implementation, including monitoring and evaluation. The curriculum includes topics such as environmental planning, regional economy, transport and social infrastructure. Development theories and strategies are also covered.

The second year also essentially follows the planning cycle, however, the focus is now turned to specific regions. Working together, the students prepare a district development plan or a regional structure concept. They subsequently investigate a topic in depth to write their theses.

Today, 200 graduates from Africa, Asia and Latin America apply for a total of 30 places in the SPRING programme each year. Apart from a high level of proficiency in English, prerequisites include a university degree in a related discipline such as agriculture, architecture, economics or political studies plus at least two years of work experience.

Applicants come from government agencies, non-governmental organisations and academia, and the course also appeals to some freelancers. Most successful applicants finance their studies with a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) or another institution.

Every year, an exciting intercultural exchange takes place in the first year of study in Dortmund. Participants from such diverse countries as China, Bhutan, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Colombia and many others scramble together into working groups in just a few weeks. An element of living globalisation is that subjects such as family planning, sexual practices, HIV/AIDS and China’s one-child policy are raised. Men and women, Muslims, Christians and non-believers from the most varied cultural backgrounds are among the students. It quickly becomes evident that not only are different national policies of relevance but so too are personal approaches to life.

The special atmosphere and intensive group dynamics leave a life-long impression on many participants. As far as Germany is concerned, however, they remain onlookers. They become familiar with and appreciate the quick public transport system and find their way around with special offers. However, they seldom make friends with Germans. Six weeks of language instruction, a couple of excursions and a course about the German planning system are not enough to gain much of an understanding of the Federal Republic.

After the year in Dortmund, the undertaking to immerse themselves in a foreign culture, perhaps even on a distant continent, awaits most participants for the second time. An Indonesian graduate, for example, wrote her thesis in Kumasi about ethnic conflicts in a northern Ghanaian district.

She investigated the impact and described how the tensions could be analysed critically and perhaps even resolved. Today she works in the Indonesian crisis province of Aceh, where a ceasefire has only been in place since the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004.

The results of graduate surveys prove that SPRING is a model of success. Almost all participants apply the knowledge they have gained in their work. They find positions in public administration, with international institutions, civil society organisations or as consultants. Almost all graduates return to their homeland. Although some outstanding participants later go on to complete a doctorate in Germany or another European country, SPRING has not seen any long-term migration of well-trained university graduates from Africa or Asia to industrialised countries. The programme is clearly tailored to the planning problems in developing countries.