Japan, South Korea top Asia’s most innovative universities

Universities in Japan and South Korea dominate a ranking of Asia’s most innovative universities based on data from publishing giant Thomson Reuters. Of the top 20, 17 are in Japan and South Korea, with Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology or KAIST, and Japan’s University of Tokyo heading the pack, according to the ranking released last week.

The National University of Singapore at 11 was the highest ranking outside those two countries, with China’s Tsinghua University at 13 and Peking University at 16. Chinese University of Hong Kong fell just outside the top 20 at 21.

A number of Australian universities – University of Sydney, Monash University, University of Queensland and University of Melbourne – were clustered between 28th and 35th position with New Zealand’s University of Auckland outperforming them at 27.

India’s Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs and Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and Malaysia’s Putra University Malaysia and University of Malaya were clustered at the bottom of the list.

Overall there are 22 Chinese universities in the Reuters ranking – including three universities in Hong Kong – which is more than any other country in the top 75. “But that’s not as many as you might expect from such a large nation,” Reuters said.

“China has a massive population of more than 1.37 billion people, so in terms of ranked universities per capita, it ranks eighth out of nine countries.”

South Korea with 20 universities in the list and a population of just over 50 million people is doing a great deal better. The country has among the highest research and development spending in the world – around 4% of gross domestic product or GDP, much higher than China’s 1.6% of GDP.

South Korea and Singapore have also had a major policy focus on innovation in recent years, longer than China which began to push innovation in its universities in the past five years.

While ‘innovation’ has many different definitions, some of them only vaguely linked to university research, the Reuters top 75 in Asia is based on institutions that are “doing the most advanced science, invent new technologies and help drive the global economy”.

Patent focus

As well as the research citations common to most international university rankings, the Reuters ranking also gives strong weighting to patent applications and success, focusing on institutions that filed 50 or more patents between 2009 and 2014 and how often the university’s patents were cited by others.

“On average the South Korean and Japanese universities on the list file twice as many patent applications than universities in the seven other ranked countries,” Reuters said.

With such a strong focus on patents, Indian universities ranked towards the bottom of the 75, with the IITs at 71 and the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore at 72.

“The Indian Institutes of Technology is a network of 23 universities that centralise their patent administration, so it’s not always possible to identify which constituent university was responsible for what research,” Reuters said, adding it had ranked the entire system as opposed to individual IITs.

“World-class campuses like IIT Delhi and IIT Bombay may have ranked much higher on the list if they weren’t grouped in with smaller and newer institutes like IIT Tirupati and IIT Palakkad,” Reuters said.

Universities were also evaluated on how often their research papers were cited by patents and the percentage of articles that featured an industry co-author.

Universities in Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh – countries with large populations – failed to make the list, while two of the region’s larger economies, the Philippines and Vietnam, also failed to make the list dominated by the wealthiest and largest countries in Asia, an indication that talent and amount spent nationally on research and development really counts.

“Of course, just because a country doesn’t have any schools in the Reuters Top 75 doesn’t mean their universities aren’t doing important research. Since the ranking measures innovation on an institutional level, it may overlook particularly innovative departments or programmes,” Reuters said.

Globally, however, Western nations generally top innovation rankings. A Global Innovation Index produced by the UN World Intellectual Property Organization, business school INSEAD in France and Cornell University in the United States, and released on 15 August based on some 82 indicators, put Switzerland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the US and Finland in the first five places, ahead of Singapore in 6th place and South Korea in 11th.