In the Caribbean, universities must take on some of the roles filled by governments in other societies - for example, finding solutions to problems as diverse as gun crime and the preservation of forests.
Meanwhile, universities from wealthy nations that see the region only as a source of revenue could stir up resentment.
Those are the views of E. Nigel Harris, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI), an institution that was established under British rule in 1948, originally as an external college of the University of London.
Since then, the university has spread across three campuses in Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, and it serves about 46,000 students from 15 countries in the English-speaking Caribbean.
Harris' close interest in the role of universities in developing societies was reflected in his election in April as chairman of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).
He wants the ACU to speak up in key debates on the worldwide trend towards higher tuition fees, and to find common ground between universities in the developed and developing worlds.
Harris, who was born in Guyana and obtained a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that universities in the developed world should take a partnership approach to international expansion.
The aim should be mutually beneficial links in "research and knowledge development" rather than income generation, he says.
One can get a sense of what Harris has in mind by looking at the work being done at the University of the West Indies.
The focus of the institution's research is different from what one might find at a research university in the US or the UK.
The University of the West Indies must address the region's social problems, says Harris, citing issues such as gun crime and other violence, and school dropout rates. "Our research thrust is more in the areas of applied research. How do we make a difference to the lives of people in this part of the world?
"In other countries there are thinktanks that develop such thinking, but in our part of the world the university has taken on that role."
It is in that context that Harris sees the university's expansion into distance learning.
"We have created a fourth campus at UWI along the lines of The Open University. We want to give a second bite of the apple ... to the big proportion of students who never finished high school."
Harris cites dropout rates as another example of universities' potential to help improve society through conducting relevant research, developing new policies and "translating" knowledge into practical effect.
He says the last point is crucial because there is already evidence on the best strategies to improve student retention, but it is not acted on.
"I don't want to speak negatively of our governments, but the truth is that they do find it difficult to implement and translate it into practice.
"We are getting to a stage of persuading them that the university itself can be integral to implementation."
Harris thinks his institution can take on "some of what traditionally governments and the private sector have done in the first world".
Caribbean higher education is not confined to the University of the West Indies, however. Since the institution was founded, state universities have been established in nations such as Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.
There are also private providers operating in the region, many of them from the US.
Throughout the sector, tuition fees are a major issue, just as they are in affluent countries such as the US and the UK.
In the Caribbean, a mix of government support and self-funding pays for students' tuition costs. Harris says this is generally 80:20 in favour of governments, although it varies across the region.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the state foots the entire bill, he says. But in Jamaica, maintaining state funding as student numbers rise is an "increasing challenge", and the 20 per cent contribution by students "may go up more and more".
Harris adds: "The trouble there is the same as it is in the UK. We've got to ask ourselves the question: what about those students who don't have the means?"
Such concerns for fairness and access are echoed in Harris' work at the ACU, whose 500 members come from nations as different as Bangladesh, Tanzania and Papua New Guinea, and highly developed Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, such as the UK and Canada.
Access all areas
Although the association is very diverse, all members are grappling with the rise of mass higher education systems and the consequent increase in tuition fees, Harris says.
"One of the great debates taking place worldwide, in which the ACU has to be engaged and provide guidance, is over what is appropriate for governments to contribute and what students should contribute.
"And how do you guarantee equity once you start asking students to pay? Are you going to discriminate against those who don't have the means?"
Another key issue for the association is how best to harness technology to deliver distance learning and promote open access, he says.
"I think universities the world over have to figure out how you adjust your pedagogy, how you adjust for student experiences so that they are able to cope with this new access, to enhance their abilities to learn in ways that will enable them to operate within this new world."
Harris acknowledges that some people view the Commonwealth as an outdated concept, which could raise doubts about the value of the ACU as an institution.
"It is an important question. In truth, universities, particularly in the OECD countries, are probably asking themselves exactly that: 'What value is it to us in terms of our continued fellowship and linkage with universities in developing countries, because our interests are not necessarily the same?'
"That thinking can be challenged - I think it is wrong-headed. The world is becoming far more globalised. The developing world and the developed world will be more related than ever before."
Universities from advanced nations can, Harris says, "bring their own knowledge, experience and maturity from the developed world to impact the developing world".
And the ACU can be the conduit that allows the "building of partnerships that can be mutually beneficial", Harris adds.
'Danger of resentment'
Of course, not every institution operating internationally does so out of altruism alone, and some are driven primarily by financial interests.
"This is where there is a danger of resentment, certainly in our part of the world," Harris says.
"If we are seen as a source of revenue - whether by recruitment of students or establishing centres in the Caribbean where the major purpose is really pursuing sources of revenue - that does cause a degree of resentment."
Although the Jamaican government in particular has welcomed "offshore universities" - usually US medical schools established on Caribbean soil - Harris is clearly more cautious.
The relative ease of gaining accreditation is one reason why US providers are attracted to the region, he says.
"Students who can't get into universities in the US get an opportunity to come here to do their medical degrees and then go back to the US."
The mutually beneficial relationships that Harris would like to see between universities in the developed and developing worlds would focus on areas of direct relevance to the latter.
This would include health - "HIV/Aids, some of the chronic non-communicable diseases such as diabetes" - and helping developing nations "understand more about our flora and fauna, how we protect our seas and our islands, how we protect our forests".
The "knowledge that already exists in the first world" can "enhance and improve the quality of life of people in the developing world".
And universities can have a fundamental role in that process, Harris believes.
"The first-world universities have got to do some general thinking about how they can...partner with local universities in research and knowledge development, in ways that will benefit both partners.
"It is a big part of what a university is."