Understanding the role that universities play in society can, as Altbach (2008) suggests, help mobilise support for building an efficient higher education system. What central roles do they play? How do they contribute to social and economic development?
Undeniably, in today’s economy, the engine is the university. Universities have contributed, contribute, and will contribute to both social and economic development and other priorities, especially of the young democracies such as Cambodia. They have become an essential partner in the development of nations as witnessed in the stronger links between university research, teaching, industry, the world of work, and the greater participation of universities in social development around the world.
As far as the economic contribution is concerned, universities play four principal roles. First, they train a labour force that becomes an important economic resource. This resource includes scientists, professionals, technicians, teachers, and government and private sectors workers. Second, universities perform a role as a revenue generating industry. They generate revenue from sponsored research, tuition, support service fees, and other fund appropriation. These incomes provide jobs and pay for services in the communities. Third, universities contribute to economic development as generators of new knowledge through their research activities. Such knowledge can secure nations of their comparative advantage. Finally, yet importantly, the role of universities is to transfer new technologies to the marketplace. This transfer refers to both the tangible and intangible products of university research and other activities including the licensing of patents, copyrights, process expertise, and the start-up of new companies and so on.
Besides, universities play a wide range of other civic roles. They contribute to the creation of civil society by, for example, providing spaces for the exercise of political associations and free speech. They also help promote critical thinking and active citizenship that contribute to sustainable development, peace, wellbeing, and the realisation of human rights, including gender equity.
Because of these important roles, they deserve continuous support for capacity building and improvement. Businesses, industries, and governments need to increasingly recognise their role. A strong and effective university system, as many scholars contend, will benefit society and have a positive effect on both social and economic growth and development. We all need to seriously consider what Altbach (2008) emphasises, “Societies that ignore the manifold purposes and roles of universities will be much weaker” (p. 13).
Altbach, P. G. (2008). The complex roles of universities in the period of globalisation. In Global University Network for Innovation (Ed.), Higher education in the world 3: Higher education: New challenges and emerging roles for human and social development (p. 5-14). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.