ASIA: Going for world-class research universities

Asian countries with growing economies and high tertiary enrolment rates now want to push on to build world-class research universities. But developing a 'research culture' will take time, a conference of Asia Pacific Professional Leaders in Education (APPLE) heard in Singapore this month.

"Asia's universities are changing a lot and they are still evolving," said Thailand's former science and technology minister Yongyuth Yuthavong in a thought-provoking speech on reinventing the university.

"The function of our universities now is very different from before. They were founded mainly to teach, but now more active research has been added," he said. But universities must also contribute to solving problems in society and also function as cultural centres, he told the conference organised by rankings company QS.

In Thailand "we are very anxious about the quality of research", Yongyuth told University World News.

The Thai government's policy is to increase spending on research and development from 0.2% of gross domestic product to 0.5% within five years - an ambitious target. "If we can get half of that, it will be quite a lot," said Yongyuth. "Keeping that promise means increasing the number of researchers by two or three times in the next five years."

The Thai government last year designated nine of its top universities as national institutes of research with an extra US$100 million allocated to them each year, to lift research performance.

There has been a shift in thinking in Malaysia as well. "Our university focus is very different from before, which was to enhance human capacity. Now we want to improve research," said Noorsaadah Abdul-Rahman, a professor of chemistry at the University of Malaya, speaking at the conference.

She said the Malaysian government was strongly promoting the intensification of research, with four institutions, including the University of Malaya, accorded research university status, requiring them to focus and intensify their research.

Abdul-Rahman told University World News: "There is a big gap as we need to get enough people to do research at a certain level. The education situation in Malaysia before was to encourage people to move from school to higher education, but for research we have to increase the number of students that go on to masters and Phds, and to push all those who have qualified at undergraduate level to move forward."

Raising research performance in Asia is a challenge said Phuong Nga Nguyen, Director of the Centre for Quality Assurance and Research Development at Vietnam National University in Hanoi. "But national governments in different countries have recognised the importance of research in higher education institutions to contribute to the economy in their countries."

"This is particularly true of ASEAN governments," said Nguyen referring to the Association of South East Asian Nations which includes Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines as well as Brunei Cambodia, Laos Burma and Cambodia.

"A number of ASEAN countries have made research a national priority and have devoted budget funds to a number of leading universities for the purposes of improving research," said Nguyen, who is also chief quality officer of the ASEAN University Network, AUN.

These include four universities designated by Malaysia as research universities, nine in Thailand and two in Vietnam. China is also developing nine world-class research universities.

For many countries the drive to improve their research status, and hence their world ranking, has meant having to recruit research talent from overseas. "We are trying to recruit distinguished professors from other countries. It is a policy similar to other countries such as Singapore, China, Korea and even Taiwan," said Abdul-Rahman.

But is not as simple as inviting them to come. "We have to advance our research activity so that people can do cutting edge and multidisciplinary work," she said.

"One of the things we have done is look at research areas and see how we can match people together into research clusters, so that we can increase the amount of research and development," Abdul- Rahman added.

Other strategies involve a greater push to publish research, as this is a key indicator of world- class status. But she cautioned that universities following that route needed to be clear that their research was contributing to the national needs and society in their own countries rather than blindly seeking to emulate the top western universities.

"There needs to be a balance in research activity," she said.

Nguyen said becoming a world-class research university "also means a change in perspective by university leaders.

"They need to make a strategic plan to favour recruitment of those who are productive in research. That is good but there is also a negative impact," Nguyen warned.

For example, research professors start to compete with each other in getting research funds and spend more time on their research, so that teaching can suffer or is delegated to less qualified academics or even postgraduate students and teaching assistants.

Unlike in Malaysia, Asian universities such as Thailand and Vietnam also face a language barrier in achieving research university status, not just because they do not write in English but also because they are unfamiliar with English-language journals and their publishing demands.

"Asian countries recognise the drawback and need investment in language studies," Nguyen said. "There needs to be more incentives to those who publish research outcomes in English, such as a bonus to their incomes. This is already happening in Vietnam and other ASEAN countries."

Abdul-Rahman said the Malaysian focus on research was beginning to show some results in terms of increasing the number of publications in prestigious journals, and in increasing the number of researchers overall.

While it is not even close to the performance of Singapore, let alone top universities in the West, "we are moving in the right direction," she said. "The most important thing is to inculcate the research culture in universities. The challenge here is to change the mindset and that is not an easy process."

"The idea of a research university is based on world-class standards but world-class is higher than what we can achieve right now, we need to look at the best in Asia," Abdul-Rahman said, citing Singapore as a standard to reach.

"We are looking at the National University of Singapore. Oxford, Harvard and the rest at the top of the world rankings are old established institutions with a lot of history behind them. We cannot follow them but must look at younger institutions. We are looking at Tsinghua and Peking [in China] and Tokyo University. We have to be realistic," she said.

Nguyen said research universities could not be built quickly. "Research performance must be raised stage by stage," she said.

Malaysia is over-ambitious to try to use the National University of Singapore as a benchmark. NUS is in a league just below Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, but is surely in line with Carnegie, Princeton, Yale, Purdue and so on.

Malaysia is not even near the level of lower or unranked Singapore universities.

A more realistic benchmark for Malaysia now is probably nearer Australia's Monash, Adelaide, or Melbourne.