The Role of Universities in Socio-Economic Transformation

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By Fauzia Nasreen[*]


Universities play a critical role in the development and progress of societies. They not only produce human resource necessary for development activities, but are also regarded as the initiators and contributors to change in societies. As such socio-economic transformation dynamics are very much dependent on how change is managed by societies through higher education. However, some leading educationists have expressed two opposing views on universities and the social change nexus. This essay attempts to build on the hypothesis that in the process of socio-economic transformation, universities have played and continue to play a key role. Three fundamental questions will be addressed in doing so: first, the university’s role in socio-economic transformation; secondly, the ways in which universities can promote social justice, economic prosperity and inclusive development growth; and lastly, the university’s contribution in strengthening the bond between state and society. The question of how universities can help in creating knowledge-based society and economy will serve as the backdrop.

Introduction:  In exploring the fundamental features and challenges faced by universities today, one needs to look at the role of universities in socio-economic transformation, particularly of developing countries. From ancient times, knowledge has played a pivotal role in the advancement, progress and evolution of human society and civilization. Quest for knowledge, curiosity to know, urge to discover are inherent traits of human nature. The persistent desire is to master knowledge and use it as a vehicle for human comfort and betterment. In this innate desire for knowledge the criticality of universities, their vital part in propagation, generation and creation of knowledge, has led scholars, thinkers and scientists to pay great attention to various pursuits within the purview of universities. In the following sections these arguments will be explored in detail.

Background: Historically, societies have witnessed different stages of human civilization centering around knowledge. Based on advancement in knowledge, societies have been changing, transitioning and transforming. Much of these paradigms have been determined by human endeavor to harness nature through exploration, knowledge and research. Universities and higher education in general have been instrumental in catapulting the desires of mankind to greater heights. Critical thinking, accessibility to education and freedom of knowledge has been fundamental in this process of changing societies or to use the expression Society in Motion. Human nature is also metamorphosing with the passage of time, underscoring the connection between knowledge, societies and human beings.

In the earlier phases of history when mankind was still unfamiliar with the boundless potential of human nature and the universe, liberal arts led to man’s understanding of nature, the universe, society and man. As the human civilization progressed through agricultural and industrial revolutions, science and technology dominated scholarship, research and university outputs. In the present day context people talk about knowledge-based society and knowledge-based economy. The world has already embarked on the age of ideas. The discourse since the 1990s “emphasizes the university’s place as a paramount player in a global system increasingly driven by knowledge, information and ideas.”[i] For developing countries comprehension of the absolute importance of education, its accessibility to all and hence social mobility and economic benefits, has wider import.

The transformative role of a university has assumed even greater significance as the world situation has become more complex with extraordinary expansion in human interaction, research and innovation. The dynamics of the changed circumstances posed by globalization, proliferation of knowledge and information and other social, economic and political transitions demand an increased understanding of the paradigms of the world today. The challenges posed by illiteracy, poverty and income disparities have compounded the problems of instability and insecurity, particularly in developing countries. The university’s role in arresting and possibly reversing some of these trends can become even more meaningful through 21st century-problem-specific training, research and knowledge. More importantly this would require establishing the university as a solid link between the community and public and private sectors.

The contemporary environment has posed challenges for universities in several ways:

  • Globalization has created interdependence and shrunk distances. Moreover, this process is fast paced and universities are expected to respond at a more rapid pace;
  • Technical and communication revolution has led to increased disparities among regions and countries;
  • Since the level of development is directly related to innovation and unique ideas, the disparities are sapping physical and mental capacities of populations. Space for such activity is severely constrained in regions where there is instability;
  • The challenges posed by these limitations have created contradictions resulting in conflict and violence in some regions and societies, particularly in the developing world;
  • The accelerated rate of population growth in these regions has led to scarcity of resources, environmental degradation, demographic shifts and epidemics adversely affecting the output and outcome capacities of societies.
  • Universities can be vital contributors in meeting the challenges outlined above. The biggest challenge being helping countries in graduating to higher levels of development.

Consequently, in helping policy and decision-makers alongwith other stakeholders in societies, universities do and can play a constructive role in promoting public good, service delivery and in meeting various challenges including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2015. If developing countries have to graduate to the levels of advanced countries, socio-economic transformation has to be steered in a way that they promote prosperity, development and peace in these societies. It is, therefore, crucially important to understand the different ways in which universities or higher education institutions “generate, contribute or inhibit social, economic and political changes”.[ii] A crucial goal for the 21st century is “learning for all’ as “expanding and improving education are key to adapting to change and confronting these challenges (global changes).” More importantly the benefits of quality education result in “more rapid and sustainable economic growth and development.” [iii]     

Developing Community for Transformation: The role of universities in developing communities has been extensively highlighted by scholars and experts in the field of education. It also recognizes the fact that society’s transformation particularly in the socio-economic sphere is inextricably linked to the state and condition of its communities. Professor Emeritus Anuwar Ali in his talk “Developing the Community: The Role of Universities and Open and Distance Learning” has, while referring to the nation’s desire for a progressive, stable and peaceful community, underlined that it is “one that is economically, socially, materially and spiritually complete as well as able to contribute to the country’s well-being.”[iv]   The question is who creates these communities and how. In this respect Professor Ali has, among others, identified the following goals for education institutions:

  • Creating growth and improved conditions for communities through human capital development.
  • Enabling communities to use education and knowledge acquired for creating public good.
  • Universities generating knowledge to drive and transform the community and promoting public interest that would inter alia result in improving lives and enhancing wages and productivity.
  • In imparting life-long learning, universities must keep this as an important strategic focus as well on creating knowledgeable, responsible and skilled workforce for economic growth, incorporating creativity and innovation and leveraging ICTs.[v]


Ali (2010) stressed the special role of open universities in making education accessible and in obviating the issue of education promoting social inequality. In developing countries Open Universities and Distance Learning (ODL) have emerged as an important vehicle for empowering people. The reach to international reservoir of knowledge has allowed people to overcome geographical barriers. Transfer of knowledge that facilitates socio-economic transformation is a significant feature of distance learning. There were 300 million distance education learners in the Commonwealth in 2006 and 30 Open universities in 2009. This in itself illustrates the increasing reliance of educationists and policy-makers on ODL. The trend is in sync with the 2007 Kampala Declaration of Commonwealth Summit which underscores that creating an equitable society with the help of universities should be an espoused goal of its members. In Pakistan, in addition to Allama Iqbal Open University, there is a Virtual Campus. COMSATS Institute of Information Technology has the distinction of setting up its own Virtual Campus.


As essential ingredients for community development and creating the minds critically important for knowledge generation and research, Embleton (2008) talked about three core values espoused by the York University in Canada. These are: i) academic freedom, ii) social justice and iii) accessible education. She stressed that the academic freedom is the guarantor of the production of new ideas, of the testing of those ideas and knowing if they are sound. She also underscored that “progress comes from imaginative rethinking of paradigms and theories and received expectations in the light of data contradicting expectations.”[vi] If social change is the goal, then there must be social justice without which the change will not result in the betterment of society. Social change and social justice cannot be ensured without accessible education and education restricted to “any kind of elite”. For socio-economic transformation of societies, to quote Dr. Embleton “individuals who are ‘curiosity driven’ are needed”. In the final analysis universities and education have a vital role in creating “a skilled workforce, with a capacity to innovate continuously (which) is the building block of a successful 21st century economy.”[vii]      


University Partnerships and Realizing MDGs: In the realization of MDGs higher education has played a critical catalyst role. At the national level, by acting as the link between government and community, universities train professionals and business leaders as well as policy makers. Consequently through their interaction with the community, universities facilitate in understanding, assessing and finding solutions to various challenges. Their cooperation with government, results in assisting the functionaries in devising policy to overcome these challenges. At the global level, the solidarity and commitment in the meeting of MDGs, is demonstrated through sharing of expertise, research and knowledge in the identified goals. Research, innovation and training are quintessential to combating the challenges posed in the sectors of health, food security, environmental degradation, and education.


A study related to CIDA-funded University Partnerships in Cooperation Development programme, highlighted the way in which university partnerships made a qualitative difference in the achievement of MDGs in some developing countries. Each of the areas specified in MDGs and how universities can help overcome the problems has been detailed in the study document. The study provides empirical evidence about the rationale for developing university linkages to overcome MDG challenges.[viii]  The examples quoted amplify the role of universities and higher education in making a big difference even through modest undertakings in the lives of so many people. The initiatives and partnerships range from addressing the underlying social and economic causes for poverty and hunger to health and education, women empowerment, development and environmental degradation.


In Pakistan there are several such university partnerships at the national, regional and international levels. However, it might be useful to study the impact factor specifically related to MDGs. Leveraging such co-operations for community development and public good must get translated into practical and meaningful outcomes for communities and socio-economic transformation. This requires an extended study and research which is outside the scope of this paper.


Change by Empowering Women through Education: A great deal of emphasis is on women’s role in Higher Education. UNESCO published in 2012, its first World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education[ix] which noted that in the last few decades, in negation to the historical process, the trend has been favourable in so far as higher education for women is concerned. However the situation varies from region to region. In several developing countries social and cultural barriers still exist. Nevertheless, it is at the primary and secondary levels that children learn to develop critical thinking, creativity and curiosity to develop and explore ideas. Depriving girls of this fundamental human right enshrined in various international and regional documents, from early childhood education, has its own perils for the societies especially those of the developing countries.


Keeping the global village perspective in  mind, it is no longer conceivable to keep communities and societies isolated. Women must be part of this process. Women equipped with the tool of education and globally integrated within the world of knowledge and learning can contribute enormously to the economic, political and social developments of their communities and the world at large. Violence has a debilitating effect on individuals. When perpetrated against women it causes structural imbalance which can then become cancerous for societies. In developing countries, higher education for women has many dimensions and complexities. The most important challenge being that this goal has to be achieved within the prevailing cultural milieu. In addition to the cultural barriers, there are serious issues of resources, accessibility and the connected aspect of social mobility. Dedicated women universities have partially helped in overcoming the cultural barrier issue. However their future prospects, especially in the field of higher education institutions are critically curtailed.


A problem quite often agitating the minds of girls and their parents is about the practical utility of education once they are married. Regrettably the inherent value of education and the overall positive impact on family life and society is seldom recognized. This further restricts the opportunity for women’s education and pursuit of careers. In turn it results in the waste of talent and non-utilization of a productive workforce. The World Bank has termed women friendly environment as “Smart Economics.” Higher education enables women to make informed choices and decisions. Education brings the best talent and provides the requisite fruits of the talent first to the individual herself, then to the family, community and society as a whole. In this context UNESCO’s (2012) Special Project titled Women, Higher Education and Development outlined its aim “to foster gender-inclusive culture through education to promote sustainable development and peace.”[x]


The women perspective and their inclusion in various national processes lends strength to the social fabric and higher education is no exception. They must get due recognition and the right place in decision-making of universities. The role of leadership and role models in inspiring women cannot be underestimated. Universities and higher education institutions are the best incubation centres for nurturing women leaders and role models. Concerted efforts to train and then to place women in higher positions would go a long way in this venture which is essentially to create knowledge based societies. Women’s visibility and voice can become trend-setters for younger women. However responsibility must also be shouldered by women in leading positions. They must demonstrate wisdom and strength of personal character in charting the right path for the benefit of higher education for women and for building sound societies.


Conclusion and Recommendations: The essay illustrated that universities do have an important role in socio-economic transformation. However, they do not operate in a vacuum. Their function, performance and objectives must serve the larger interests of the nation as a whole. That objective has to be aligned with building safe and prosperous communities that are productive and capable of contributing to the good of humanity at large. More importantly university’s pursuits and activities must solidify bonds between the state and communities. Since communities and nations are part of a bigger world community, universities must strive to engage with each other from a wider perspective. In the ultimate analysis if productivity growth rate is to be enhanced, then the criteria of better governance, population welfare and adequate employment opportunities will have to be ensured. This can be done through knowledge-based society and knowledge-based economy and through partnership between universities and decision-makers.


Based on the above, it is apparent that universities can fulfill their role in socio-economic transformation in several ways:


  1. Need-based assessment would determine the kind of qualifications, research and skills that are required for the industrial and economic growth of a particular country. An objective analysis must be carried out for future ventures. These can be shared with policy-makers and other stakeholders to arrive at a common approach.
  2. Linkages with industry on the one hand and government on the other hand will enable universities to act as a bridge between the private and public sectors. This should become an on-going and a regular feature of university activity.
  3. Integration of women, their training and placement must ensure that these provide the requisite socio-economic dividends.
  4. Building peace and stability and responsible citizens must be vital objectives of the pursuits and activities of universities.
  5. Ability to forecast and develop vision for the future, based on the assessment of current trends, must be promoted in the universities.
  6. Universities must prepare its students and faculty for socio-economic change that could then help in transforming societies for the betterment and progress of communities.
  7. Universities must give due importance to innovation and, more importantly, to unique ideas. These can be fostered through freedom of thought and creativity and development of critical analysis and understanding.



[*] The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.

[i] Drew Faust (2010) Harvard University President speech “The Role of the University in a Changing World” at the Royal Irish Academy, Trinity College, Dublin

[ii] John Brennan, Roger King and Yaan Lebeau (2004) The Role of Universities in the Transformation of Societies, An International Research Project, Synthesis Report of Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI),UK Open University and Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU)

[iii] World Bank (2012), World Bank Education Sector Strategy 2020: LEARNING FOR ALL

[iv] Anuwar Ali (2010) President/Vice Chancellor Open University, Malaysia, The 6th Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning, “Developing the Community: The Role of Universities and Open and Distance Learning”, India, 24-28 November 2010

[v] ibid

[vi] Dr. Sheila Embleton, The University as an Agent of Social Change speech at York University, Canada, 19 April 2008

[vii] ibid

[viii] Association of Universities of Colleges of Canada (2013), University Partnerships in Cooperation and Development: Higher Education is Key to Achieving MDGs

[ix] UNESCO (2012) World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education

[x] UNESCO (1998) Special Project: Women, Higher Education and Development document ED-98/CONF.202/15, Paris