The pivotal role of universities in small towns and isolated regions was underlined at the conference.
The University of the West Indies has been a leader in fighting entrenched poverty. Its vice-chancellor, Sir Alister McIntyre, said countries need a "moral revolution" to foster the climate needed to tackle poverty. The international community has already adopted some UWI-devised poverty-measurement techniques. "We believe we are on the road to unearthing links between infant and child malnutrition and teenage and adult violence," Sir Alister said.
The UWI was not the only marker of the strength among the small universities. In an era of budget cuts hitting many sparsely populated regions of the world, "Don't touch our university" has been a rallying cry for many regional communities, said one Canadian university president.
Pierre Lucier, who heads the ten campus Universite du Quebec, said small-town universities are an important part of their communities. But he warned that they must remember their missions as teaching and research institutions. "A university should not become just another regional development agency," he said during a discussion on the university partner in regional economic development.
Dr Lucier confirmed some of the economic benefits of a region having a university: one study showed that that graduates from regions with universities were more likely to form businesses in the region than those from an area without higher education.
Delegates in a parallel session on economic benefits heard of tax-multiplier studies in North America, including one in Illinois that showed that for each dollar spent on higher education, the state got $4 in tax revenue from graduates.
Cham Tao Soon, president of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, outlined ways to keep students who traditionally pursue their studies outside the city-state. One idea has been to create an interest in studying the region, which covers Malaysia and other neighbouring countries. This has been backed by government funds and continued bilateral interest between universities.
Leslie Wagner, vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, said one way to empower a region was to encourage universities that had traditionally competed with each other to cooperate. Professor Wagner said forming a web of like-minded academics and administrators from several institutions "has made it possible to speak with one voice" in lobbying government.
Barry Conyngham, vice-chancellor of Southern Cross University in Australia, warned universities to be wary of industry wanting to claim the ideas generated by institutions. SCU had helped establish an area south of Brisbane as a major grower of macadamia nuts and producers of tea tree oil with A$5 million and 40 hectares of land. However, the university did not rate a mention as a partner at a recent public unveiling of the region's project plans.