The Role of Universities in Socioeconomic Growth

by Amer Hashmi and Ali Shah


Universities have played an indispensable part in the continuity, growth and the advancement of civilization. The development of human civilization through history has presupposed the ceaseless processes of discovery, codification, dissemination, diffusion, iteration, and transformation of information and learning acquired through experience in order to meet successfully with challenges human society is inevitably and routinely faced with in its collective struggle for continuation of existence. Different methodological means in the form of techniques and strategies of acquiring knowledge have been constructed for the purpose of this collective and cumulative transmission and circulation of knowledge through time.

These means were then preserved and disseminated through certain technologies of storage and circulation like successive historical stages of printing to ensure common assumptions and theories about the world were widely available to make common endeavor in society possible. Information and knowledge, once standardized, codified, and stabilized, has been regulated by certain institutional forms in society. Universities have served as the longest-surviving exemplar of these organizational and institutional forms in settled forms of advanced human society in the age of agriculture, the age of industry, and now in the age of information and communications technologies (ICTs). The current paper, based on the author’s professional experience in higher education governance and management at one of Pakistan’s premier institutions of higher learning, attempts to enumerate different ways in which universities are promoting their age-old function in new ways.


Great Expectations

In the 21st century, the combination of market-based pull forces and state-driven push initiatives that aim at making national economies competitive in the age of globalization has led to increased expectation from universities beyond their traditional roles of teaching and academic research. This expectation is for universities to assist directly the processes of economic development and growth using their native R&D capabilities and strengths in specialised forms aimed at the production of new ways of thinking and doing.


Two Fundamental University Roles in National Economic Growth – Two overarching modes in which universities promote socioeconomic growth are:

  1. The generation of new knowledge that becomes commercially viable and usable through the processes of guided innovation; and
  2. The supplying of highly skilled professional and technical personnel to staff critical positions in state, society, and market that make possible the execution of routine and new functions required for the production and consumption of goods and services as well as the sustainable reproduction of multiple processes underpinning this production and consumption of goods, products and services.

These two modes are interconnected and depend on various strategies universities deploy for performing their development mission.


Science-Based Value Creation

They use their privileged positions as repositories of knowledge to promote technological development in society as a whole using academic consensus and research-based disruption as two opposite but complementary prongs of the same process of knowledge expansion and deepening for social advancement.

One of the major contributions of universities to economic growth is to help increase the quantity and quality of GDP through increasing the quality and quantity of science-based value creation in the country using specialised property-based land development initiatives that become the sites where universities performing the function of creating newness, industry performing the function of organizing market forces, and government performing the regulatory function, come together for new technology-based firm and business creation.

Universities in recent years have become pioneers, promoting a new form of land use, planning, and development based on the establishment of technology incubators and science and technology parks for hosting start-ups that play an important part as indispensable technology suppliers to established big domestic firms and multinational corporations and act as nodes of value chains of big business conglomerates.

Universities in Pakistan can easily facilitate this role with proper policy planning. Growth of higher education sector and the consequent increase in the number of universities in Pakistan can lead to the use of land as a traditional growth factor for the purpose of promoting innovation.

However, there is a palpable need to move beyond the current state of knowledge-based land use in Pakistan. Prime sites inside and outside the higher education sector should be devoted to the development of science parks. Industrial zoning (SEZs and industrial districts) should be coupled where necessary with science-based zoning (science parks). This coupled development will see the next generation of networked universities in Pakistan which can collectively help create up to as much as 30 to 40 percent GDP value.


Growth of new Knowledge-Based Finance

Universities become important means of channeling government grants and public and private loans for the development of extended knowledge infrastructure that in turn leads to the varied development of different commercial sectors of the domestic market. This also becomes the reason for the development and diversification of public-private financial sector. Project-based funding focused on multi-disciplinary R&D projects helps create an elite profile of grant seeking when it comes to applying for grants to international financial and development institutions such as World bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), USAID, Asian Infrastructure Investment Fund (AIIF), Silk Road Fund, etc.

The growth of R&D expenditure is directly related to the expansion of higher education sector that then occasions the rise of new forms of public-private partnerships targeting different investment instruments for university development. Universities become successful means of marrying R&D expenditure to more market-based forms of investment promoting design, infrastructure, engineering, and prototyping strengths of universities. Government of Pakistan can actually consider the establishment of a consolidated National University Development Fund to be jointly overseen by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) for providing and channeling financial support for upstream and downstream university development.


Internationalization and Knowledge Diplomacy

Universities serve as the key agents of internationalization of higher education and promotion of knowledge diplomacy. They become major factors for the proper development of S&T cooperation between sovereign states through bilateral exchange of talent that in turn promotes international scientific mobility of highly skilled professionals. One important implication of universities as executors of knowledge diplomacy is the potential of international university cooperation to provide a new model of conducting diplomacy where the goal is not accumulation of exclusive power but mutual sharing of knowledge and inter-sectoral domestic and global cooperation for the purpose of greater peace and stability.


Transformation of Human Resource into Human Capital

Highly qualified people make up the most essential resource input for national innovation, governance, and management.

Universities lead the essential process of transformation of human resources into human capital. Universities perform this directive function in line with both the market-based demand side realities of sectoral needs for skilled personnel and supply-side state planning of promotion of highly qualified personnel in key and crucial areas of national development and economic growth. This holistic focus allows universities to provide a unitary focus to public policy making for greater collaboration and coordination between government and industry as well.


Advanced Fields, new GDP, and new Personnel

Universities have become home to advanced disciplines like new materials, new ICTs including big data analytics, applications, and internet of things, new manufacturing like 3D-manufacturing, complex and integrated demographics, new forms of urban development, energy, automation, robotics, advanced agricultural technology, artificial intelligence, man-machine integration, space technology and exploration, etc. These have made universities prime movers in setting the stage for transforming the components of GDP in the 21st century. Developed countries have led the way in this transformation. It is now the challenge before developing countries to reorganize their higher education sector to incorporate these building blocks of innovative wealth creation in their integrated planning and development processes.

In so far as Pakistan is concerned, leading universities of the nation should be given the responsibility and resources for acquiring critical mass of highly trained personnel, R&D capabilities and strengths in these fields. Industry should be called upon urgently to incorporate these 21st century fields in their operations for the absorption of personnel to be trained in these fields of the future. Already existing schemes of foreign and domestic scholarships and financial support must actively incorporate and prioritise these fields of study.

Universities typically combine these advanced S&T fields with advanced social sciences so that the social impact of S&T development and tensions arising out of social change caused by the operations of S&T development should be correctly apprehended, scientifically forecasted, and their impact properly channelled in the interest of greater social harmony. This makes universities gigantic institutional radars for gauging and setting the correct direction of broad-based social change.

Special remuneration packages are then introduced for people working in the development and management of these advanced R&D fields to turn these challenging fields into attractive academic and professional destinations of choice for the best and the brightest in the country.

In Pakistan, universities have to focus on creating a multidisciplinary national corps of professionals that are equipped with leading concepts and applications in cybernetics, S&T and social science theories for managing the comprehensive and far-reaching processes of social change.

Universities will have to act as the vanguard of the modernisation of higher education sector in Pakistan. This modernization is nothing but the systemic and systematic accelerated capacity building in the above-mentioned advanced fields and disciplines. This modernization of higher education is the root of socioeconomic modernization. This advanced knowledge and human capital creation should be geared to meeting the future challenges of population growth, urbanization, demographic shifts, progressive technology sophistication, climate change mitigation, and globalization of talent markets.


Social Capital Accumulation

Money capital and human capital will only be properly and optimally deployed in a social or institutional situation in which a high level of social capital is present. Universities perform the crucial function of promoting trust and reciprocity through organization of collective learning that then becomes the basis for social capital, which plays an irreplaceable role in integrating individual effort with collective endeavour in economy and society.

Networking is a potent enabler of social capital. Universities become thriving places for multi-institutional networking when policymakers, entrepreneurs, scientists, innovators, academics, businessmen, and competent civil servants come together in different learning activities. Universities, through their preference for equality of interaction and prioritization of ideas over official rank, make sure that social capital accumulation is horizontal.


Social Innovation Promotion

Universities combine S&T development with social innovation promotion. This combination reveals dual responsibility of universities to both economy and society. Technological means in the service of social ends helps create diversification of livelihoods in disadvantaged segments of society. Technology can circumvent traps of poverty and privilege to create a relatively level social playing field. Universities can also inculcate a strict social service ethic in their students and graduates for their technical competencies to be engaged toward realizing societal goals of harmony and eradication of destitution and deprivation. Universities can tremendously foster growth and prosperity by combining new technology promotion and new social business creation into a unified innovation platform.


Brain Circulation Promotion

Universities become magnet sites for attracting global talent and playing a limited role in reversing brain drain through different professional research and teaching opportunities that enable the circulation of talent, which is virtually borderless in today’s world and follows exciting opportunities.


Policy Advisory Hub

Universities play the very important role of promoting the establishment of think tanks and policy centers within their organizational universe to assist the national policymaking processes with expert advice and evidence-based policy recommendations and proposals. Such university-based initiatives reorganize certain portions of academic and research strengths of universities to initiate policy research and analysis and promulgate this body of knowledge through special knowledge exchange events that push the boundaries of strictly academic research. Action-oriented thinking prospers in these spaces of deliberation in universities. These think tanks and policy centers rewire the internal relationships of consultation and exchange of ideas for performing the critical role of identifying the broad trends of change in society domestically, regionally, and globally and feeding forecasts into multi-level national decision making.


NUST Knowledge Ecosystem

Cognizant of the above-identified role of universities in development, NUST has consciously undertaken various initiatives to ensure that it performs optimally to meet the goal of promoting national socioeconomic development and growth in the 21st century:


Concentration of Brains and Talent

The 2016 QS Rankings has ranked NUST 112th amongst the universities in Asia. NUST consists of 23 constituent schools, each acting as a complete system of allied research centres, institutes and labs. NUST’s total student population is approaching 15000 consisting of the brightest young people in the country selected after a rigorous round of entrance examinations.

This student population is enrolled and organized in the fields of IT, Applied Bio Sciences, Management Sciences, Basic Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities, and Art, Design and Architecture in 115 degree programs at different levels, of which 46 are multi-disciplinary. The total faculty of NUST numbered well over 1000 in 2015, of which 413 were PhDs. Majority of NUST’s faculty is foreign-qualified having finished their Master’s- and PhD-level studies, or both, from leading universities of the world.


Research and Development

NUST has successfully developed a diverse and integrated R&D platform that brings together research capacities from a broad spectrum of S&T, social science and management disciplines. NUST R&D personnel have filed various patents and produced marketable technologies in the above-mentioned fields. Efforts are being made to promote inter-school collaboration for unified research aims and goals. Between 2010 and 2015, more than 2500 papers were published in indexed journals by NUST faculty and students and more than 3500 papers were presented in national and international conferences and symposia. Various NUST Schools are working on industry-sponsored projects and routinely work with major domestic and foreign companies. Between 2010 and 2014, NUST’s R&D teams have successfully completed more than 153 industry-sponsored R&D projects.


Policy Advisory Capabilities – NUST Global Think Tank Network (GTTN)

Founded in early 2012, NUST GTTN, the key policy research and advocacy initiative of the university, has been registered since early 2014 as not-for-profit society. GTTN has provided cutting-edge and viable inputs to national policy making for comprehensive socio-economic development as well as organizational development of the university itself. GTTN has formulated pioneering knowledge that has contributed to the establishment of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its subsequent development. GTTN is currently the most advanced hub of knowledge in Pakistan on the future evolution of CPEC. It regularly arranges knowledge and research exchange events likes roundtables, seminars, focus groups, etc., on pressing national, regional, and global issues.


Industry-Academia Collaboration – NUST Corporate Advisory Council (CAC)

CAC is the NUST’s key organ for establishing and sustaining industry-academia linkages. With more than 100 corporate members representing the top levels of big national and multinational companies, CAC functions as the organic connecting tissue between industry needs and research-based applied solutions delivered by NUST schools.

Since CAC’s founding in 2010, it has undertaken various initiatives ranging from organizing innovation and entrepreneurship events through regularly scoping industry needs to matching them with resident solution development expertise of various schools of the university.


Innovation and Entrepreneurship Promotion


NUST Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE)

CIE contains a number of organs aimed at fostering innovation and entrepreneurship through two-way technology transfer, industrial liaison, and business incubation. CIE houses the first technology incubator of Pakistan established for nurturing promising start-ups and currently provides tenancy to more than 20 fast-growth start-ups in IT, energy, and, robotics;


National Science and Technology Park (NSTP)

NUST is in the process of establishing the NSTP in collaboration with the leading science park management consortium based in China. NSTP will be the first proper science park in the country. It will promote the development of a concentrated innovation ecosystem for new business and ideas development through the on-site presence of big national and multinational companies, and successful R&D-based small and medium enterprises together with fast-growth start-ups all drawing upon the R&D backbone of NUST. NSTP will massively help organize and promote innovation activities in Islamabad-Rawalpindi region and lead to a strong agglomeration effect on innovation activities in the region initially followed by distributed national positive externalities.


Community Services

NUST is heavily involved in promoting a social service ethic amongst its students through a combination of academic, co-curricular, and governance initiatives. NUST is offering a fully-fledged compulsory academic module in community services and development at undergraduate level. It runs an active community services club through which students are encouraged to undertake several community service initiatives across the length and breadth of Pakistan.

NUST also serves as the headquarters of the Pakistan chapter of International Talloires Network, the global community engagement initiative that brings together more than 300 universities in 77 countries around the world. In 2015, in recognition of its community engagement services, NUST was awarded the prestigious MacJannet Prize of the Network.


Sustainability – NUST Trust Fund (NTF)

Following the global best practice in university drives toward sustainability, NTF, the general endowment fund of NUST, was established as a registered trust in mid-2012 and has the objective of supporting the development of the university towards meeting its objective of becoming a comprehensive 21st century institution of higher education that is focused on dissemination and creation of knowledge for rapid all-round national development and extension of financial assistance to deserving students. NTF is the general endowment fund of the university with 15 eminent trustees.



Even advocates of domain specificity cannot deny the role of universities in fostering comprehensive national development and growth. Countries would need universities to increasingly become the guides in the quest for discovery of new ideas and practices required for national rejuvenation. Universities in the developing world will, therefore, require to take on increasingly unconventional roles in addition to their traditional roles of imparting learning.

These modern roles will in turn be based on new models of higher education policy making, and university management and governance. Pakistan, as a developing country, needs to learn urgently from the global best practice in higher education organization. The local context would have to be kept uppermost in policy thinking for successful implementation. The new directions and trends of university roles that were outlined above will only make sense once there is a holistic framework for overall reform and development in place in the country that leaves no sector of Pakistani state, society, and market untouched.

Without such a broad reform outlook, higher education reform alone would not make much of an impact. This comprehensive approach to the role of universities is especially relevant in view of the ongoing development of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is aimed at revitalizing the economy of Pakistan in the long term. A broad reform outlook would enable the actualization of these different roles that universities play and allow them to become factors of success for CPEC too. NUST has been moving in the right direction to try and assume as many roles as possible that universities can play for the development of Pakistan but a concerted higher education roadmap for collective thinking and action would need to be put in place if universities are to have a bellwether effect for comprehensive national reform efforts.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.