A breed of "global research universities" is at once driving globalisation and being shaped by the phenomenon, but teaching institutions and poor nations could be excluded.
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, outlined the concept of the global research university (GRU) in a keynote address at the British Council's Going Global international education conference in London last week. He defined a GRU as a "multiversity", active in all disciplines and fields "plus global systems and ranking ... located in national systems of higher education, but also part of a global system at the same time".
In another keynote address at the conference, which was attended by 1,200 delegates, John Sexton, president of New York University, predicted a world of "eight or ten ideas capitals" in which universities were central.
But panel members from Russia and Brazil, as well as Professor Marginson, told the conference that swathes of the world could be left out in such a scenario.
Leandro Tessler, director of foreign relations at the State University of Campinas in Brazil, said a key goal of higher education must be "the eradication of poverty and inequalities". Every part of the world must have a GRU, but non-GRU universities must be key to policies, he said.
Professor Marginson started the debate by arguing that "higher education and research are central drivers of globalisation - research universities are among the most globally connected and driven of all sectors of society - while at the same time global connections, the global flow of ideas, global comparisons and rankings, and global people mobility are the most powerful single driver of change in higher education".
He identified three tensions in the GRU phenomenon, between national and global goals, Anglo-American dominance and the rise of Asia, and the institutions left out altogether.
Professor Marginson said: "In many nations, especially in Africa, there are no GRUs. None is in sight." He said that "many millions of lives are blighted by the global knowledge gap" and argued that research universities in developed systems had a "public-good role" in establishing long-term partnerships with higher education institutions in emerging systems.
Professor Sexton discussed how NYU, which has 16 sites on six continents, operated as a global institution. He said that it was soon to open a campus in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, which would be an "organically connected ... second doorway" at which many of NYU's leading academics would teach and conduct research.
Isak Froumin, a senior education specialist at the World Bank and academic supervisor at Russia's Higher School of Economics, was on a panel that responded to the keynote addresses. He asked how "mass teaching schools" were affected by globalisation, "because the future of social and economic development lies not only in - maybe not mainly in - GRUs, but with those types of colleges and universities".