The ever-perceptive Simon Marginson posed an intriguing question in a recent speech to the Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning conference in Taiwan. It was – Will higher education become as commonplace as mobile phones?

While he didn’t outright answer his own question, the implication was that if highered doesn’t yet equal the ubiquity of the mobile device, then it’s certainly on the way to becoming central to the lives of many more people.

Professor Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education in London, UK, was looking at trends in the growth of higher education across North, East and Southeast Asia. But across the world in general, he said, since the late 1990s, participation in universities and colleges had grown at an accelerating rate.

As reported in University World News, Marginson said Northeast Asia was now as wealthy and powerful as Western Europe and the United Kingdom, or more so, he said, and combined research and development investment now exceeded North America. On the Purchasing Power Parity measure of GDP, China’s economy had reached that of the United States, he said.

At world level the Gross Tertiary Enrolment Ratio was increasing at 1% a year.

“One per cent a year is 20% in 20 years. In another generation half of all people will enter tertiary education and a third will gain a degree. Less than 15 years ago, only half of all people had mobile phones.

“Will higher education become as commonplace as mobile phones?”

In regard to research, he said, in the Asia-Pacific the “main story” was the enormous output of published science coming out of China.

“When the world’s largest nation grows its research at the rate of 15% a year for almost 20 years, it is mathematically certain that in future a large part of human knowledge will come from that country. 

“In just one decade the total output of published science in East Asia has moved well past the United States. China is moving into second place in research after the United States. In quantity terms it will move past the US in the next five years. In quality terms the United States, and also Europe as a bloc, are still well ahead of China. The US produces a third of the world’s leading science, the high citation papers, the top 10% and top 1% papers.

“However, in the physical sciences and engineering in China – engineering, computing, chemistry, physics and to a lesser extent mathematics – China’s research quality is improving at a remarkable rate. In the year 2000 it produced 0.6% of the world’s top papers in chemistry. By 2012 that world share of top papers had risen to 16.3%.”

If we didn’t know it already, big changes are on the way throughout the world of higher education and research.

The speech can be read in full here (pdf).