Gapminder.org is great chart candy. Check out this one. Behind the lovely bouncing balls of that linked chart is a fantastic story. Per capita GDP increased by a factor of 10 between 1900 and 2000, despite a great depression, two world wars and the Spanish flu, and all the other ails and woes of the 20th century. Not only is he richer, but Mr Joe Average Earthling lives much longer than in 1900, and can expect to have less children, and have them all outlive him. It's a remarkable achievement that never makes the newspapers. Quiet victories, won at a few percent a year, don't make headlines.
Extrapolate the graph a bit and by 2100, as the worlds population begins to shrink, Earth will have about 10 billion people with an average per capita GDP in today's money a little shy of 100,000 US Dollars. This is staggering wealth. Only Norway and Luxembourg have numbers like this today. Imagine a whole world, on average, as rich as Norwegians.
The importance of GDP per capita is hotly debated by economists who live in economies with high GDPs per capita. Drawing on their excellent education, they argue it isn't really a good measure of social progress. In warm, comfortable well equipped offices they debate the hidden costs of economic growth. The healthy, long lived, well fed and educated grandchildren of todays 'bottom billion' can debate the matter in 2100.
It sounds like Utopia, the real end of History, the land of plenty. There are plenty of 'black swans': rare events that could be imagined, but given that this vision is just an extrapolation of what happened in the 20th century, we could waste a couple of decades in brutal warfare, have a good plague and throw a few nukes around and still reach the target. Global warming at the extreme end is about the only scenario that could derail the sheer inertia of the trend.
What place will Universities have in this new Utopia? An obvious answer is 'About the same as in Norway' but this isn't so. The currently developed world grew rather slowly at first. Many of it's universities existed in seed form for a long time. When mass tertiary education arrived after the second world war, preexisting institutions grew rapidly to soak the numbers, on a substrate of fairly good infrastructure at secondary and primary level.
The big developing economies are growing faster than the first world did. Places like China, India, Nigeria, Indonesia have huge populations on the cusp of a point where they will need, and their people will demand, tertiary educations. The sizes of the potential cohorts in these countries is staggering. Conventional university models will be simply crushed by the volumes. Even if you could build campuses big enough, fast enough, who would teach the classes? In conventional models, it takes 8 years to turn a smart first year undergraduate into a keen junior lecturer - and the smartest graduates will get a lot of better offers. Expect academics from the first world, with longer pedigrees that may sell well locally, to be poached.
It's in this climate, not in the mature first world markets, that online learning, distance learning and open courseware models will really find traction. Without strong existing cartels fighting for an 18th century status quo, college educated parents and employers with old fangled notions of what a degree should involve, and with huge incentives to deliver, governments in these countries can, and must, leapfrog the current model of a University into something new.
To see the model for the future of Tertiary Education, look south.