Universities are increasingly seen as the frontline in socioeconomic development of the non-industrialised world.
Earlier this year, a joint World Bank/Unesco task force signalled a shift in donor policy away from a near-exclusive concentration on primary education.
Now, just before next month's Unesco review of progress, the first since its 1998 world higher education conference in Paris, a report commissioned by the Association of Commonwealth Universities adds more weight to the role universities can play in bridging the vital knowledge gap between the developing world and the rest.
Michael Gibbons, secretary-general of the ACU, said: "Universities must articulate their mission in terms of engagement with their societies. If the conventional wisdom about globalisation is to be believed, all institutions need to 'think globally and act locally'."
Universities and Development warns that without universities, developing countries are likely to be excluded from the growth associated with the knowledge economy. But it adds that they will have to generate more income from outside their national government and secure greater autonomy.
Richard Bourne, head of the Commonwealth policy studies unit at London University's Institute of Commonwealth Studies, added: "Universities have been marginalised in the debate on socioeconomic development over the past 20 years. The truism of the 1960s and 1970s that universities were critical to the development of the newly independent nations went awry in the 1980s and 1990s.
"But if developing countries are going to benefit from development in the 21st century, they have to be part of the new knowledge economy. The health of their universities is critical - you cannot have crummy universities and be part of the knowledge economy."
Ruth Pearson, director of the centre for development studies at Leeds University, said: "University students have long been regarded as the vanguard of social and political change. It is important that the resource they offer is mobilised for local development in their home countries and regions."