Internationalisation key as Asian challengers bid to reap returns

Investment is ‘necessary but not sufficient’ to enable world-class research, which also relies on international collaboration

December 13, 2017
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The steady rise of Asian institutions in the world rankings is an all-too-familiar trend: whether it is institutions in China, South Korea, Singapore or Hong Kong, the movement is clear to see. What is sometimes less clear is whether there are factors common to these nations that explain this trajectory.

However, analysis of universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings that have similar characteristics may provide an insight into how Asian providers often have very different ways of improving their overall performance.

A cluster, dubbed the “Asian challengers”, is made up of a group of 64 institutions that often have very strong links with industry and “perform above expectations” in teaching, research and citation impact.

As might be expected from the group’s name, the universities are predominantly based in Asia (a few other institutions, mainly in South America, also make the list), with China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Russia and India most heavily represented.

They tend to be ranked below the top 200 but several are rising up the rankings and could challenge more established universities from Asia and elsewhere in years to come.

However, it is the scores within the group on the “international outlook” pillar of the rankings that give an insight into how some countries appear to be boosting their rankings performance through major investment while others are enjoying success mainly as a result of increasing their cross-border academic engagement.

More than two-thirds of the cluster score below 40 out of 100 on the pillar, which is made up of measures looking at the proportion of international staff and students at a university as well as how much research is co-authored with academics abroad. This contrasts with the distribution of universities across the whole ranking (more than 1,000 institutions), which shows that more than half of institutions achieve a mark above 40.

Digging further into the data suggests that cross-border research collaboration is where the Asian challengers as a cluster have a particular weakness. Almost half the universities in the group score below 20 out of 100 on this metric, with just 15 managing a mark above 30. Meanwhile, more than 350 institutions – about a third of all universities – in the whole ranking manage a score on international collaboration above 70.

At the same time, there is no doubt that – in keeping with the general performance of countries such as China and South Korea – the universities score very well for the level of investment that they enjoy, particularly from industry: almost half the institutions in the group score above 60 in the rankings’ industry income pillar, with 12 achieving a mark above 90.

The pattern of some Asian countries investing heavily in higher education while at the same time having low levels of international collaboration was an element picked up in a recent paper exploring whether the academic “openness” of a country has more influence on the impact of its research.

According to the article, published in Nature in October, scholarship in countries with relatively less collaboration and cross-border migration of scientists makes much less of an impact in terms of citations. In Asia this includes countries such as China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, even despite this last country spending one of the highest amounts worldwide on research and development as a percentage of gross domestic product.

Caroline Wagner, chair of international affairs at Ohio State University, who co-authored the research with Koen Jonkers, from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, said that it was important to remember that basic investment in national higher education systems was still vital to create enough research capacity for collaboration to take place.

“Collaboration is based upon attraction – you have to have something to exchange in order to collaborate. If a university is operating at a basic level, they may need more national funds to enhance research capacity,” she said.

“Capacity and attractiveness mean that the institution can participate in cross-boundary collaborations, which enhance capacity in a virtuous cycle.” 

Professor Wagner added: “All parts of investment in capacity are important – one is necessary (basic investment), but not sufficient, in enabling world-class research." 

This suggests that some countries in Asia that are investing heavily in their universities are simply at the beginning of a journey that will lead to growth in international collaboration later. But which nations have the furthest to go before they have levels of collaboration that push universities such as the Asian challengers into the upper echelons of the rankings?

Useful comparators here are Hong Kong and Singapore, which strongly outperform most other nations in the region for the share of their research carried out in collaboration with overseas academics. Given the evidence of a correlation with research impact, this is likely to be a major reason why these two city states have seven institutions in the top 200 of the World University Rankings (and are not among the lower-ranked Asian challengers).

While Hong Kong and Singapore's size and geographic position as regional hubs mean that it may be unrealistic for some larger Asian nations to ever have similar levels of collaboration, data from Elsevier’s Scopus database of published research show that out of the countries represented in the Asian challengers group, Malaysia, South Korea and Russia are closest to emulating them.

Looking at the performance of individual universities in the list suggests that certain institutions might be leading the way. For instance, Yonsei University in South Korea – one of the highest-placed Asian challengers in the overall rankings – achieves a much better score in the international pillar than others in the list. This is partly because of the relatively high numbers of international students and staff at its Seoul campus.

Professor Wagner added that before cross-border collaboration increases in developing research nations, “often, capacity is strengthened by collaboration between nationals and expatriates living in a scientifically advanced country” which eventually feeds into the country tapping into “the global network of collaboration”.

This suggests that a number of the Asian challengers are likely to be on the verge of a breakthrough in cross-border collaboration and therefore will be vying for higher places in the rankings at some point in the not-too-distant future.


Asian challengers: top 10 by World University Ranking position

University Country WUR 2018 Position
Korea University South Korea 201–250
Osaka University Japan 201–250
Tohoku University Japan 201–250
Yonsei University (Seoul campus) South Korea 201–250
Indian Institute of Science India 251–300
Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology Russian Federation 251–300
Tokyo Institute of Technology Japan 251–300
Nagoya University Japan 301–350
National Tsing Hua University Taiwan 301–350
Tomsk Polytechnic University Russian Federation 301–350

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