Universities in developing countries may enjoy a new wave of investment after a policy shift by the World Bank that acknowledges the key role of higher education in bringing about economic and social advances.
In a report to be published next month, the bank acknowledges that it has been seen as reluctant to provide loans for tertiary education.
But the authors say that global changes since its higher education policy was adopted in 1994 justify a new approach.
Without formally abandoning its priority for basic education, the bank says that tertiary education is "necessary for the creation, dissemination and application of knowledge and for building technical and professional capacity".
The report was presented to a conference celebrating the 30th anniversary of Unesco's European Centre for Higher Education (Cepes) in Bucharest last week. It was approved by the board of the bank in July.
Jamil Salmi, coordinator of the bank's tertiary education group, told the conference that the modern knowledge economy demanded higher-level skills. But universities in developing countries were not equipped to capitalise on the creation and use of knowledge. He cited the example of Chad, where academics had discovered oil but the country was unable to exploit it.
Dr Salmi said some problems, such as the brain drain, could not be overcome by individual states. The new policy promises help in "drawing on international experience and mobilising the resources needed to improve the effectiveness and responsiveness of their tertiary education systems."
The bank is already involved in tertiary education projects in 28 countries, but its total lending has exceeded $500 million (£320 million) in only one of the past ten years, slipping to $100 million in 2000. Only 7 per cent has gone to sub-Saharan Africa.
The report acknowledges a "perception that the bank has not been fully responsive to the growing demand for tertiary education interventions by clients and that lending for the subsector has not matched the growing importance of tertiary education for economic and social development, especially in the poorest developing countries".
Dr Salmi said the bank would support higher education reforms where there was the political commitment to expand universities sustainably, reduce inequalities and improve quality. "I believe we have major challenges in front of us in many parts of the world, but I hope we can also see them as opportunities than can be seized."
The conference was opened by the president of Romania, Ion Iliescu, who said that universities had extra responsibilities in the era of the knowledge society. "They must affirm themselves as constructive, knowledge-generating citizens as well as educators of responsible and competent citizens," he said.
Sir John Daniel, Unesco's assistant director-general for education, said the broadening of access to higher education remained a global challenge. "Today's world is a world of young people and we would need to open one substantial new university every week to satisfy their demand for higher learning. That is not happening. We need new approaches," he said.
Delegates to the conference put forward a series of new research programmes to be conducted by Cepes, mainly concerned with the brain drain and international collaboration.
But Kenneth Edwards, the former vice-chancellor of Leicester University, who acted as rapporteur, said it was impossible to devise instant solutions because conditions were changing so rapidly.