Compulsory computers for all students could soon become a reality, according to TechLearn, the technology-transfer arm of the Joint Information Systems Committee.
More than 75 per cent of students already have computers, and staff increasingly expect students to be able to communicate online.
TechLearn says the time is ripe for a debate about mandatory student ownership of mobile computers, whether laptops, smartphones or personal digital assistants. It is organising a conference aimed at senior university and college managers in June on "ubiquitous" computing.
Tom Franklin, senior technology adviser to TechLearn, said: "Ubiquitous computing means all students and staff at a college or university having access to a computer at all times. Typically, one would also expect them to have a network connection wherever they are."
More than 200 universities and colleges in the United States run laptop programmes, which vary from loaning computers to requiring students to buy a laptop with preloaded software.
However, before "ubiquitous" computing can be introduced in the United Kingdom, institutions will need to look at its effects.
The Department for Education and Skills and the funding councils, for example, would need to decide whether charging students for computers counted as a top-up fee and whether it would be allowed under the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, Mr Franklin said.
Keith Duckett, head of ICT at the Learning and Skills Council, said further education had already raised the ratio of computers to students to 1:1.9 from 1:10 in three years by earmarking funding. "We can't expect students to equip themselves out of their own pockets. But it would be wonderful if PCs were as common as mobile phones," he said.
Talk of mandatory use of computers might be a red herring, according to Bill Harvey, deputy director of quality and learning innovation at the Scottish funding councils. "I would personally want to see a very strong pedagogic case for the benefits of universal ownership rather than universal access. Just giving someone a laptop doesn't by itself do very much for learning."