The findings of a three-year, 3 million study by Strathclyde academics found student spending power supports local economies, particularly small businesses, and that a lively population of students makes streets feel safer.
Researchers also found companies with university collaborations are more likely to innovate new products and benefit from increased productivity.
Ursula Kelly, of Strathclyde University, joint co-ordinator of the study, said the findings showed the UK's universities played an "incredibly" important role both economically and socially.
She said: "They are often among our regions' biggest employers, they attract thousands of international students and visitors, and academics are working with every sector of society from public, private and third sectors.
"Moreover, at a time of global economic crisis, universities can help build a more solid future, enhancing skills and know-how, and encouraging innovation."
Researchers from 17 institutions across the UK worked at length on The Impact of Higher Education on Regional Economies report to build a national picture of how universities affect life.
They concluded universities could help integrate excluded communities into the learning community. Another finding was that to retain graduates in local employment, employers needed to broaden their "offers" to potential graduate employees beyond the traditional package of benefits based on monetary returns.
The report's investigations included the impact of students on city housing and labour markets, an assessment of how university and business collaborations affect innovation, and the impact of academics' work with communities.