Need to upgrade universities and research as R&D heads East

Asian economies have surged ahead and demand for higher education from a rapidly growing middle-class has fuelled expansion. But the region’s universities and research need to upgrade to keep up with economic changes that include the global shift of industries, research and development to Asia, a regional symposium of research management experts heard.

Many universities in Asia have already been through a “revolution of teaching and research” as elite higher education becomes mass higher education, said Venni Venkata Krishna, a professor of science policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s school of social sciences in New Delhi.

That, in turn, fuels the need for more postgraduates and doctorate holders to teach at tertiary level.

“Now there is a view that unless you have research potential you will not be able to respond to the challenges of innovation.” With universities being positioned as frontiers of innovation, university-based research needs to be connected more closely to society and industry.

“One challenge for universities is not yet accomplished, on top of that a new challenge is emerging – a third revolution – universities are being connected with the notion of innovation and university-industry relations,” Krishna told University World News.

Asia’s institutions will need to step up research quality and increase research collaboration, including multidisciplinary collaboration, networking within the region and collaboration with industry.

And they will need to upgrade and revamp doctoral training to include entrepreneurial skills, according to experts at the 13-14 November symposium on the role of universities in stimulating economic and social development, organised by the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute and held in Langkawi, Malaysia.

The symposium was one of the activities of the Research, Higher Education, Development and Innovation, or RHEDI programme. It was attended by professors, policy leaders and practitioners from Australia,China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore,Thailand, Vietnam and UNESCO in Bangkok.

R&D shifting to Asia

It is all the more important for Asia to know how to develop and manage research groups, and to turn out more highly skilled graduates, as R&D investment growth has shifted to Asia from the West.

A number of ‘knowledge hubs’ are now well-established in the region including in Shanghai, Beijing, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi and Singapore. This is a major change from previous decades when multinational corporations shifted their manufacturing to low cost countries, including in Asia.

“In the beginning multinationals were bringing their own technology, adapting it to local conditions and marketing in the region,” Krishna said.

“Now a large number of multinationals have established R&D centres in India and China and elsewhere, not just to benefit from proximity to a large market and to tap into a cheaper workforce including graduates, but also for developing innovations for the global market.

“These R&D centres are getting linked to some of the research intensive universities, in engineering, IT hardware, IT software, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and other areas,” Krishna continued.

“You can hire a PhD [graduate] in Delhi or in Shanghai at a more reasonable price. If you can have only one PhD in the United States or Europe, [in Asia] you can have two or three. You have more manpower so you have more ideas.”

“That’s why R&D within universities in the region needs to modernise, the quality of teaching needs to improve,” he said.

But this has not been happening systematically.

“The landscape is shifting and we [in the Asia Pacific] are not ready for that shift,” said Ranjit Gajendra, a doctoral student at the University of Melbourne.

Improvements are occurring only selectively within the region. And even countries like Malaysia and China, which are making progress, are not up to scratch in research quality and innovation, Gajendra said.

“If you benchmark them against international standards, they don’t cut it.

“Asia’s ability to innovate will be influenced by working hand in hand with the developed world. We have done it for years,” said Gajendra. “But now there needs to be a marriage of wealth and brain power to develop a research culture that is of international standard.”


Policy-makers and university leaders often use the excuse for not backing high-end research in their institutions and linking with industry that major industries are not present on their soil.

The industries that are in many Asian countries are resource-based industries that are not exposed to innovation, but there needs to be a mindset change to benefit from globalisation and a shift of R&D to the region, said Seeram Ramakrishna, a professor of engineering and former vice-president of research strategy at the National University of Singapore, or NUS.

“There are huge opportunities in a globalised world.” Industry “may not be residing in the same country where it is producing, where it is selling, and where it is innovating. It’s a lot more global”, he noted.

Singaporean industries earn half their revenue from outside the city state, and researchers may be working on innovations for products that may not be sold at home.

“This is a new paradigm where research and innovation is meant not just for the local economy per se; it is more of a globalised opportunity, which will feed back into the local economy,” Ramakrishna said.

A new network established at the symposium – tentatively called the Asia-Pacific Network for Research and Innovation for Sustainable Economics or APNRISE – brings together academics and research managers from the Asian region and beyond.

It will focus on research and innovation policy and how to improve research so that it is more aligned with, and feeds into, growing economies in a globalised world.

“The interface between higher education, research, innovation and science policy needs to come together at the institutional level and at the national level, if a country is going to be able to position itself competitively in what is now a competitive global economic milieu,” said Lynn Meek, a professor at the University of Melbourne and foundation director of the LH Martin Institute, which specialises in higher education and research leadership.

“For a knowledge economy driven by innovation, it makes very little sense to have two separate agendas.”

Professorial fellow at the LH Martin Institute, Alan Pettigrew, said: “We need to understand the motives of the industries coming into the region. Why are they coming now?

“The only way that sort of question can be answered is if we can create an environment where open and free discussion can occur between the three partners in the operation, that is: the policy-maker at government level; the institution that carries out research, be it basic or applied or contract; and the industry that needs the research to be done.”

This would help ensure a better workforce that is relevant to the countries in which the industries are situated, he said.

Build systematically

Innovation and university-industry relations are buzzwords in the West as well, but APNRISE aims to research how this can be facilitated in Asia and help build research management and research capacity.

The network believes research must be managed in a way that contributes to sustainable development, systematically improving its quality rather than leaving institutions to develop pockets of excellence, almost by chance or not, as the case may be.

Nonetheless, unless specifically backed by their governments to build research capacity in particular spheres, university leaders in developing countries in Asia argue that developing research excellence is an expensive endeavour.

There is little dispute that substantial resources are required to upgrade.

“Internationalisation and global partnership requires a lot more funding and changing national immigration policy, which might be difficult for many of the Asian countries. But following meritocracy, and fostering a culture of excellence within their own boundaries, can be done and so this is the way to go,” said NUS’s Ramakrishna.

“Where Singapore got it right, was focusing on a meritocracy, which everyone else can do.”

It is also important to build capacity for research and innovation policy regionally “since the pool of researchers working in these fields is small, even on a global level”, said Asa Olsson, project manager for the RHEDI programme, based at the LH Martin Institute.

Science mobility and forming international scientific networks and collaboration is already a global phenomenon, said Meek. “There are some small players but there are also some very big players – China and India – coming very rapidly to rival what is going on in North America and Europe.”

But at the same time, experts have noticed gaps in those networks.

“What came out of this symposium was a very strong consensus that there is an opportunity we should not miss for establishing an Asia-Pacific network focusing on research management and innovation, and university-industry engagement,” said Leo Goedegebuure, director of the LH Martin Institute.

There was a consensus among the countries participating that they are facing the same issues. “Collaboration would strengthen their work endeavours,” Goedegebuure said.

“There are vast opportunities for formal and better interaction,” Alan Pettigrew concluded.