The drive by China and other Asian nations to create world-class universities to rival the traditional Western elite has "every prospect of success".
This is the verdict of Richard C. Levin, president of Yale University, who spoke at the Higher Education Policy Institute annual lecture at the Royal Society this week.
In his lecture, "The rise of Asia's universities", he said that institutions such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK and Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley in the US "define the concept of 'world-class university'?".
"But as we all know at this, the beginning of the 21st century, the East is rising."
He said that the economic development of Asia in the past 60 years had "altered the balance of power in the global economy", and that the rising nations of the East "all recognise the importance of an educated workforce as a means to economic growth and the impact of research in driving innovation and competitiveness".
The lecture focused on China, which has seen student enrolments more than quintuple from 1 million in 1997 to 5.5 million in 2007. It now has the largest higher education system in the world, but still has a gross enrolment rate of only 23 per cent, compared with 82 per cent in the US.
China also has an "audacious agenda" to create a handful of true world-class universities, and "has the will and resources that make it feasible", Professor Levin said.
"If the emerging nations of Asia concentrate their growing resources on a handful of institutions, tap a worldwide pool of talent and embrace freedom of expression and inquiry, they have every prospect of success in building world-class universities. It will not happen over- night; it will take decades. But it may happen faster than ever before."
But rather than see the developments as a threat, the West should embrace the changing landscape, he said. It fostered student exchange and research collaboration, which translated "into better-informed and more productive citizens".
The lecture comes ahead of the Lord Dearing Memorial Conference at the University of Nottingham on 11 February, where vice-chancellor David Greenaway will give a keynote speech on "The Globalisation of Higher Education: the Emergence of Asia".
He told Times Higher Education that globalisation still had a long way to go, with less than 2 per cent of students globally being internationally mobile. This meant market penetration was "quite low".
He said: "We often talk about the market in student mobility and research collaboration as if it has peaked. It hasn't."