A new report has identified the top 100 universities across the Western Pacific region in 21 fields. It describes the extent of international collaboration among the leading institutions - which is strikingly higher than anticipated - and provides a detailed analysis of their research performance.
The report provides a detailed analysis of research performance among the universities based on their publication outputs, total citations and international co-authorships.
Compiled by Dr Thomas Barlow, a leading Australian research strategist, Asia 100: Benchmarking university research in Asia and Oceania is a hefty tome of 350 pages that includes more than 250 tables and figures. It is not freely available.
Barlow's report says that the Australian, Chinese, Japanese and Singaporean higher education systems are the strongest in the region while also pointing to areas of strength in New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
The report shows how university partnerships are helping institutions enhance the quality of their research and highlights regional trends in investment in academic and industrial research and development.
"My report reveals the trade-offs that Asian universities increasingly face in balancing the volume and quality of their research outputs," Barlow told University World News. "As well as in choosing whether to focus or diversify their research portfolios, and in differentiating from competitors while also pursuing partnerships with top institutions."
He noted that in 2012, for the first time, 100 universities from Australasia and East Asia were listed in Shanghai Jiao Tong University's top 500, adding that "the implication is that 20% of the world's best research universities are now based on our side of the Pacific".
National performance in university research was strongly correlated with national investment, Barlow said.
Over the decade to 2011, Chinese investment in university R&D more than quadrupled in real terms, while South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore each more than doubled their investment; in Australia, too, university R&D spending almost doubled in real terms.
Yet investment growth had been slower in New Zealand while R&D spending in Japan's universities had actually declined in real terms since 2007: "As a consequence, institutions elsewhere in the region are strengthening their reputations relative to those in these two countries."
A number of universities in China, South Korea and Taiwan were beginning to out-perform some of the less well-resourced Japanese universities in both the scale and quality of their research, Barlow said.
"This sounds positive, but the proportion could have been a lot higher. Over the past decade, 20 Japanese universities have dropped from the Jiao Tong top 500. Moreover, our region's share of the world's leading universities still remains well behind its share of the global economy."
He said that to some degree, this reflected a belief held by European and North American policy-makers about the value of research, and their determination to maintain the prestige of their universities.
"One of the striking findings from my study is that the levels of international collaboration among universities in the Western Pacific are quite high, even in Japan or Taiwan or South Korea, even though in global terms they are low compared with those between institutions in North America and Europe.
"Nonetheless, our region's universities are still engaged internationally and what is happening is that we've had this huge growth in R&D investment in universities. As a consequence, they are getting better at doing research and are becoming more connected internationally even though their connections are still predominantly with European and American partners."
What were missing were large-scale intensive bilateral interactions between the region's universities while the interactions that did occur tended to be sporadic and of low intensity, Barlow said. Yet most institutions in Asia were acutely conscious of the benefits that would accrue from stronger relationships and deeper collaboration with other regional universities.
"The report reveals interesting pairings between Chinese and Taiwanese universities, and between Japanese and South Korean institutions in different fields. So it is clear people are trying to collaborate even if the scale of collaboration is still not really significant or intensive."
The three main regions for global university research were now North America, Europe and the Western Pacific. The latter's 20% portion of the world's top universities would continue to increase and the Western Pacific would continue to assert itself compared with the other two regions.
"But North America is a fairly homogenous society where everyone speaks English and there is a well integrated scientific system, while Europe has become much more integrated and English has emerged as the lingua franca for research.
"On the other hand, in the Western Pacific we are still dealing with, and will for the foreseeable future, higher education systems that are highly nationalised, relatively insular and linguistically divided."
Barlow said that when individual institutions were looking for partners they typically still went to the United States and Europe because that was where the top research was taking place. At some point, however, it would be to everyone's advantage to foster a strong international community of research within the region.
"This is because it will help strengthen the universities own capabilities and achieve the research outcomes they want while enhancing their reputations. There are all sorts of incentives to do this although it is just not as easy to do that across our region as it is across North America or Europe.
"But I think it will be just a matter of time and nurturing. What will count the most is how many individual researchers see the benefit of tying up with someone in Japan or Taiwan or South Korea."
Commenting on the latest publication of the Nature Publishing Index and the attention devoted to the Asia Pacific region, Barlow said his impression was that the Nature editors could "see the writing on the wall".
"Assuming that global economic trends continue as they are at present, this part of the world is only going to become more significant for research and for the Nature journals. They can see what is happening and no doubt want to emphasise what's going on here."
He was strongly critical of Australian policy-makers who kept calling on the nation's universities to collaborate more with those in Asia - ignoring the fact that Australia's top fields of research were not the same as those of many Asian universities.
"The strengths of many East Asian universities do not complement the strongest areas in which Australian universities are operating.
"It is easier to drive collaboration when institutions have complementary expertise: two outstanding engineering universities are far more likely to collaborate than one with a strong medical school trying to collaborate with an Asian university renowned for its physics research," Barlow said.
"My view is that institutions should be free to develop their own collaboration strategies, as should individual academics, but that this is for the people doing the research to decide although they may need some resources.
"Institutions should be able to choose their own agenda and figure out how to differentiate themselves from others. But they are the entities that should be deciding how and who they collaborate with.
"We have a situation here where policy-makers keep admonishing universities for not collaborating enough with Asian universities and I would rather they didn't. If they are going to say you need to collaborate more with Asia, then they should think about what is required to put that into effect."
In addition to publishing his Asian reports each two years, Barlow also provides independent policy advice to governments and strategic advice to high-tech companies, universities and research organisations.
A former biomedical research fellow at Oxford University and MIT, he was a theoretical and computational chemist with a background in protein research before setting up his own publishing company.
His recent books include The Australian Miracle: An innovative nation revisited and Between the Eagle and the Dragon: Who is winning the innovation race?
He said he only provided copies of his Asian reports to universities and companies that subscribed to them. He would not give details about the cost or which institutions were subscribers except to say a large number of Australian universities purchased the reports and he was about to start marketing the latest around Asia.
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