The rise of research universities – A tale of two countries

Providing a comparative overview of a selection of the region’s research-intensive universities with a particular focus on Australia and Singapore, Leo Goedegebuure of the LH Martin Institute in Melbourne, said among the territories surveyed – China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore – Singapore represented one of the “most innovative higher education systems” in the region.

He was addressing the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, or HERANA, meeting held in Franschhoek outside Cape Town in South Africa in November last year.

According to Goedegebuure, the region itself was “one of the most dynamic” in the world. While there were marked differences among countries in terms of culture, size, wealth, tradition and public policy, they all shared a recognition of the need for and importance of research-intensive universities.

Driven by government policies in some cases, and by individual leaders in others, positive change in institutions was possible. “Systems develop, sometimes very quickly; things do change. And that is important,” he said.

Steady ascendancy

Using the Global Innovation Index, Shanghai university ranking and research networking tool SciVal, Goedegebuure compared publication outputs, innovation and university rankings across countries and selected top research universities in the region. With the exception of Japan, all universities had seen a steady rise over the past 10 years in terms of rankings, with China’s top four universities – Tsinghua, Peking, Fudan and Shanghai Jiao Tong – rising most steeply.

Across all national systems, there was a consistent emphasis on international collaboration, while university-industry collaboration produced a varied and uneven picture. In terms of the Global Innovation Index, the group was led by Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Although a relative latecomer, Malaysia showed signs of ascendancy through a unique strategy based on investment in apex (specialised research-intensive) universities, massification, and growth of private universities, said Goedegebuure.

Almost exclusively, the rise of research among the institutions came on the back of science and engineering disciplines, the exceptions being Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea which had a strong focus on medical sciences; the University of Queensland in Australia which had a focus on life sciences; and the University of Melbourne where bio-medical research had been chosen as a deliberate focus.

Instruments of development

Goedegebuure said this emphasis reflected the perception of universities as instruments for social economic policy and part of a strategy to forge industrial development in areas in which the region is known to compete.

Exploring the “sharp contrast” between Singapore and Australia, Goedegebuure said successive five-year plans focused on economic competitiveness and growth, massive investment in research and development combined with a strong emphasis on economic outcomes and impact meant that Singapore offered “the clearest case” of national development priorities being successfully reflected in university priorities.

“Not all institutes do applied research, but there is a good understanding of what an innovation ecosystem looks like, which includes research universities,” he told the meeting.

He said the system allowed for a diversity of institutional roles, but also encouraged collaboration, interaction and open innovation – a combination which served as an important model for other systems, he said.

Diverse systems

“The system is diverse, so applied research is done in dedicated institutes in an economic climate in which it is possible to attract multi-national investment in research and development laboratories. All of them operate in a context where people interact in systems of open innovation. Each has different goals and roles, but there is strong interaction. That’s what has got Singapore to the position of being the most innovative system in our region.”

According to Goedegebuure, another feature of Singaporean success has been the building of institutional infrastructure to facilitate collaboration. One example is Fusionopolis, a large and still growing research and development complex housing research organisations, companies and government agencies and situated within easy access to major universities and other educational institutions.

“There has been an overt policy push to achieve certain things,” said Goedegebuure. “There has been planned, rational change, including the establishment of the National Research Foundation under the prime minister’s office.”

Such policies also support individual institutions such as Nanyang Technological University, consistently ranked among the world's best universities in all major rankings and regarded as one of the top three universities in Asia. Headed by Bertil Andersson, a Swedish scientist, the institution concentrates on research in specific areas and through its human resource policies is able to attract top quality academics from around the world.

Building national capabilities

“There is emphasis on building national capabilities, fostering international linkages and a focus on top quality and performance. And it works – at least for Singapore,” said Goedegebuure.

In “sharp contrast” to the supportive policy environment offered by Singapore, Australian research universities have existed in a context of policy instability for the last 15 years. But many had made remarkable progress nonetheless.

Goedegebuure described the Australian university system as “stratified, with uneven distribution of research money”.

“There are huge differences between the so-called Group of Eight [top research] universities and the rest and this distribution of resources has not changed much over the last 15 years, despite all institutions being able to apply for competitive block grants from research councils.”

He said while the efficiency of the system was “debatable”, the system had succeeded in lifting participation rates and attracting international students – now Australia’s third largest export industry.

The Australian system represented a completely different story to that of Singapore, according to Goedegebuure. “There is no national policy, or focus around the type of research being conducted; there’s nothing to suggest knowledge of a functioning ecosystem,” he said.

But despite this, the country’s higher education sector had seen successes. “We have strong executive leadership geared towards maximising financial income based on education in order to invest in research.

“Lo and behold, we have been quite successful.”