Making Universities Relevant

The fact of the matter is that there is the expectation that universities generally create this new knowledge and innovation. But there are “universities” and universities. A university with the capacity to consistently create new knowledge will sustain its relevance to build a KBE.
20 Apr 2019 14:10
Making Universities Relevant
Students in a Lecture Theatre at the University of the South Pacific in Suva.

Returning to the question from last week as to how resource- constrained countries’ universities can develop a knowledge society, in the first place, would necessitate the construction of a tertiary education foundation, that is, a strong and workable quality assurance system of learning and teaching.

Some tertiary education institutions do have effective quality assurance. But some universities which have a quality assurance system only on paper, and some which have it as a caricature, certainly will not be relevant and cannot develop an authentic knowledge society in their respective countries.

Pivotal Role

But universities can play a pivotal role in cultivating a knowledge society. And those in tertiary education, mindful of such a glorious task of building a knowledge society, will, in the first place, ensure the institution of an effective quality assurance system.

The bottom line is that universities are expected to create new knowledge and the institution of quality assurance becomes a watchdog for the pursuit of authentic and relevant knowledge for constructing a knowledge-based economy (KBE) or society.

OECD Definition

Knowledge in the form of a KBE became a development metaphor in 1996 through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The OECD in 1996 defined KBE as “economies which are directly based on the production, distribution and use of knowledge and information…

This is reflected in the trend in OECD economies towards growth in high-technology investments, high- technology industries, more highly- skilled labor and associated productivity gains…”

The KBE did bring high technology with a tremendous emphasis and focus on information and communications technology, with devastating consequences, which I will allude to below.

University competence

But for now let us see what universities in particular countries did to bolster a KBE and to make themselves relevant.

To totally participate in a KBE of any country, the World Bank proposed the fulfilment of these requisite needs, possibly by a university:

  • need for educated skilled people to create, share, and use knowledge;
  • need for an active information infrastructure to create, communicate, disseminate, and process information/knowledge;
  • need for a regulatory and economic environment to facilitate the free flow of knowledge, to sustain investment in information and communications technology (ICT), and to encourage entrepreneurship;
  • need for innovative systems where we could have a network of educational institutions, research centers, think-tanks, private enterprises, and community groups; appropriate innovative systems can induce the development of inter-university collaboration, interdisciplinarity, internationalisation, quality higher education, academic-industry collaboration, R&D, creative thinking, etc.; these innovative systems may draw on the increased growth of global knowledge, adjust that knowledge to local needs, and eventually even craft new knowledge.

What the World Bank was saying was that a country with the help of its university could begin to develop a knowledge society, when it makes sure that it has skilled people to create knowledge, that it has an information system to create and disseminate this knowledge, that it introduces regulations to facilitate a free flow of information, and that it creates networks that could pull large amounts of global knowledge into a country, to create even further knowledge.

University and KBE

The fact of the matter is that there is the expectation that universities generally create this new knowledge and innovation. But there are “universities” and universities. A university with the capacity to consistently create new knowledge will sustain its relevance to build a KBE.

However, the KBE did not live up to expectations. The KBE did sculpt an information and communications technology (ICT) environment, but its focus was merely on knowledge production, and not knowledge dissemination. Powell and Snellman (2004) argued that this neglect to focus also on knowledge dissemination was ill-advised, as major productivity gains are attained only when new technologies are wedded to matching organisational practices.

Knowledge dissemination would help to harmonise or link new technologies with some organisational practices; and the fact that KBE did not primarily focus on knowledge dissemination, meant that it neglected one of the World Bank’s pillars to boost its own strength.

And so, not surprisingly, an Asian Development Bank (ADB) study noted the poor returns from investments on KBE, as when it failed to produce sustainable economic growth and wealth creation in poor countries. The bottom line then was that universities, in order to remain relevant to build a knowledge society, could not remain wedded to develop a KBE society in full bloom.

And so entered a new concept, knowledge-based development (KBD). KBD reinforced the pillars of the KBE approach with two new pillars: social and natural environment. KBD strengthened KBE.


This linkage should transform tertiary education through innovative curricula, innovative learning and teaching strategies, broad-based governance structure, inter-university collaboration, interdisciplinarity, internationalisation, academic-industry collaboration, quality higher education, and creative thinking.

Nonetheless, KBD’s progressive application in any country is dependent on the socioeconomic environment of that country.

Undoubtedly, this conclusion raises questions on a university’s relevance in a poor country, if it cannot produce new knowledge to improve the socioeconomic status of that country.


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