1st abril 2011
Graduates - the new measure of power
At the beginning of the last century, the power of nations might have been measured in battleships and coal.
In this century it's as likely to be graduates.
There has been an unprecedented global surge in the numbers of young people going to university.
Among the developed OECD countries, graduation rates have almost doubled since the mid-1990s.
China's plans are not so much an upward incline as a vertical take-off.
In 1998, there were only about a million students in China. Within a decade, it had become the biggest university system in the world.
Figures last month from China's education ministry reported more than 34 million graduates in the past four years. By 2020 there will be 35.5 million students enrolled.
The president of Yale described this as the fastest such expansion in human history.
Inextricably linked with this expansion has been another phenomenon - the globalisation of universities.
There are more universities operating in other countries, recruiting students from overseas, setting up partnerships, providing online degrees and teaching in other languages than ever before.
Chinese students are taking degrees taught in English in Finnish universities; the Sorbonne is awarding French degrees in Abu Dhabi; US universities are opening in China and South Korean universities are switching teaching to English so they can compete with everyone else.
Capturing the moment: South Korea has turned itself into a global player in higher education
It's like one of those board games where all the players are trying to move on to everyone else's squares.
It's not simply a case of western universities looking for new markets. Many countries in the Middle East and Asia are deliberately seeking overseas universities, as a way of fast-forwarding a research base.
In Qatar, the purpose-built Education City now has branches of eight overseas universities, with more to follow. Shanghai is set to be another magnet for international campuses.
This global network is the way of the future, says John Sexton, president of New York University.
"There's a world view that universities, and the most talented people in universities, will operate beyond sovereignty.
"Much like in the renaissance in Europe, when the talent class and the creative class travelled among the great idea capitals, so in the 21st century, the people who carry the ideas that will shape the future will travel among the capitals.
"But instead of old European names it will be names like Shanghai and Abu Dhabi and London and New York. Those universities will be populated by those high-talent people."
New York University, one of the biggest private universities in the US, has campuses in New York and Abu Dhabi, with plans for another in Shanghai. It also has a further 16 academic centres around the world.
Mr Sexton sets out a different kind of map of the world, in which universities, with bases in several cities, become the hubs for the economies of the future, "magnetising talent" and providing the ideas and energy to drive economic innovation.
Universities are also being used as flag carriers for national economic ambitions - driving forward modernisation plans.
For some it's been a spectacularly fast rise. According to the OECD, in the 1960s South Korea had a similar national wealth to Afghanistan. Now it tops international education league tables and has some of the highest-rated universities in the world.
The Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea was only founded in 1986 - and is now in the top 30 of the Times Higher's global league table, elbowing past many ancient and venerable institutions.
It also wants to compete on an international stage so the university has decided that all its graduate programmes should be taught in English rather than Korean.