Asian universities climb the rankings: What does it mean for the region’s IP scene?

28 February 2022

Asian universities climb the rankings: What does it mean for the region’s IP scene?

As universities in the region continue climbing in global rankings, Asia IP asked lawyers in China, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Vietnam how the apparent surge of educational quality would affect their IP scenes.

It cannot be denied. More and more universities from Asia are barging into the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE). Some have even penetrated the elite Top 20 list, which otherwise continues to be dominated by universities from the United Kingdom and the United States.

In THE’s 2021 rankings, Tsinghua University in Beijing made it to the Top 20 for the first time, making it the highest-ranked university from Asia.

In its 2022 rankings, covering 1,662 educational institutions in 99 countries and territories, Peking University joins Tsinghua in the magic circle of 20 top universities in the world, tying for 16th place. National University of Singapore almost made it to the Top 20, as it occupies 21st spot, four notches up from its 25th spot in 2021. Alongside these three in the current Top 50 are the University of Hong Kong, 30th; University of Tokyo, 35th; Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 46th; and Chinese University of Hong Kong, 49th – for a total of seven. In 2021, six Asian universities were in the Top 50.

There’s more:

In the 2016 edition of the World University Rankings, only two mainland Chinese universities figured in the Top 200. In the current rankings, the number has shot up to 10, making mainland China the country with the fifth-largest number of universities in the rankings.

In 2016, Hong Kong had three institutions in the Top 200. The number increased to five in the 2022 rankings. From four in 2016, South Korea now boasts of six universities in the 200-best list.

The rankings were based on 13 performance indicators across these components: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. Over 108 million citations from more than 14.4 million research publications were analyzed. Surveys which attracted responses from nearly 22,000 scholars around the world were also included.

Regional impact

How will these developments impact innovation and investments in AI and other modern technologies in Asia as well as its intellectual property scene?

“I believe that this will open a host of opportunities such as foreign and domestic investments,” said Karen Abraham, partner and head of the IP practice at Shearn Delamore & Co. in Kuala Lumpur. “If local universities are able to exploit local talent, attract foreign talent and retain both, the respective Asian countries will be the prime beneficiaries of this talent and resource. If the potential of these students and their universities are noticed, it could stimulate funding opportunities that would drastically impact innovation efforts, investment in modern technology. This in turn would contribute to the growth of the IP scene in Asia. With technology advancing at a rapid rate, new systems would need to be adopted for the protection of IP.”

According to Yen Vu, executive and country manager of Rouse Legal Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City, research productivity and research income, which are among the rankings’ criteria, have much to do with the local IP strategy and legal regulations.

“The increased representation of Asia’s universities in the rankings, in the very first place, is thus a satisfying result of Asian countries’ efforts in innovating and funding for R&D activities. With this solid proof of their effective IP strategies, China, South Korea, Japan and others will be highly motivated to keep up with their innovation efforts and funding for modern technologies,” Vu said.

Indeed, behind the gloss of this positive development is the continuous backing and pouring of support by governments in Asia to local educational institutions. Such support includes funding for research.

In early 2021, Japan announced plans to raise funds for a ¥10 trillion (US$95 billion) endowment by 2022 for science research efforts by universities. The endowment fund is one of the biggest for such initiatives, earmarked for shared facilities, additional infrastructure, a national innovation system and to raise the number of students pursuing doctorate studies in Japan. According to the Japanese government, it will sell its gold reserves to help raise ¥4.5 trillion (US$43 billion) in seed money.

In 2017, the Chinese government mounted its New Generation AI Development Plan for 2030, designed to make the country a “primary centre for AI innovation” by 2030. As of 2021, China was the largest owner of AI patents in the world, with research institutes and universities comprising around 52% of the country’s top 30 institutional owners of AI patents.

As early as 2011, Singapore established its Singapore Universities Trust to inject approximately US$4 billion in funds to universities’ coffers annually over 20 years.

“With the aid of funding into R&D, ASEAN universities have the potential to become epicentres of technology-related research. Increasing innovation would also mean increased securing of IP rights,” said Savitha K. Jagadeesan, senior resident partner at Kochhar & Co. in Chennai.

“The 2021 World Bank East Asia and Pacific Regional Report on how important innovation is for developing East Asia noted that though the usual countries have driven innovation, many stay far away from jumping in, and the reinvention of this would come only from the countries’ policy makers who would have to build an environment that is pro-innovation,” said Jagadeesan. “This would mean greater incentivization of the stakeholders, which would indicate incentivizing.”

Without a doubt, the Covid-19 pandemic is likewise driving R&D activities worldwide to fill the gaps in vaccine development, treatment and digital transformation which has become a necessity.

“Therefore, we have grounds to believe that the rise of Asia’s universities can also contribute to a change in the portion of Asian governments’ funding for R&D in their effort to deal with new diseases that may emerge in the future. Particularly, greater portions of R&D funds may flow into universities and research institutions,” said Vu.

“Innovation is driven through collaboration especially due to increasing technological complexity. Hence, the pandemic, which has shown disruption in the chain of logistics, might also serve an indication that innovation and collaboration might increase region specific, which again would mean the work of IP offices in the ASEAN region will definitely come under scrutiny,” Jagadeesan added.

According to Xia Zheng, founder and patent attorney at AFD China in Beijing, it isn’t only governments that are helping to fuel innovation inside university research facilities. Enterprises have also been pitching in.

“The Humboldtian model of higher education developed around two central concepts, namely the concept of the autonomous individual and the concept of global citizenship. And like many other people, I believe we can now add a third concept of societal benefit into this model,” said Zheng.

“Here, I’d like to mention the significance of research funding from commerce and industry in addition to government funding. I see that many of the world’s major multinational companies want to work more closely with universities in the development of the most cutting-edge technologies. These companies have become a valuable source for research funding, and this allows universities to gain exposure towards the most significant problems to be addressed in the industry, while it also allows the companies to gain access to the latest thinking from the research outcomes. So, this enterprise-university partnership is becoming a trend towards a growing knowledge-based economy. And of course, we know that IP protection is a combination of innovative ideas and viable business. So, I can see surely this partnership stimulating more innovation efforts from both sectors for the benefit of the national economy” Zheng explained.

As an example of enterprise-university partnership, South Korea’s biggest internet company, Naver Corporation, invested in two international research laboratories at two universities in Vietnam in 2021. The goal: To make Vietnam one of the leading AI hubs in the world.

Vu added that the rising stature of Asian universities in THE World University Rankings also serves as an example of successful IP strategy for developing countries in the region.

Global impact

And what of IP regimes outside Asia? Of course, universities from the west still rank above those from Asia in the rankings as they continue to provide education and undertake research activities of the highest calibre. However, the ascent of Asian academic institutions cannot be ignored. What could be its impact?

“Asia has been seeing new areas of IP development with non-fungible tokens, blockchain and start-ups growing in our ecosystem. I am of the view this will continue in certain areas. But traditional west-dominated industries will likely see core developments continue more in the west,” said Deanna Wong, owner of DeLab Consulting in Hong Kong.

In Vu’s belief, western countries will not let themselves be outpaced by their Asian counterparts in the race for supremacy in science and technology.

“Indeed, the west collectively took a more cautious approach to science cooperation. The European Commission has published a guidebook advising national research organizations and universities on how to deal with foreign interference, as fears over technology espionage from China are heightened,” Vu explained.

“However, from a broader view, we don’t think that the rise of Asia’s universities can affect western IP regimes much. Western countries like the U.S. and UK are pioneering nations in IP commercialization. Just like China and other Asian countries, they’ve been implementing their own policies to support the development of strategically important technologies,” she said.

These technologies include AI, quantum technology, robotics, photonics, blockchain, nanotechnology, high-performance computing and data cloud infrastructure, among others.

That more Asian academic institutions are figuring and ranking higher in the THE rankings could signal a permanent shift in the flow of global academic talent in the future.

“For the most part of the century, Chinese and Japanese students have been part of the rising numbers of international students at western universities,” said Jagadeesan. “However, as facilities nearer home receive attention and funding as well as recognition, the shift is bound to happen.”

The Covid-19 pandemic, with the health and safety considerations that accompany it, also has something with the shift as students tend to choose universities that are closer to home.

Asian universities also revamped their infrastructure, said Jagadeesan, so it is but natural, based on cost and structure, for a student to opt for a university in closer proximity.

“However, this could be an indication that as more IP rights might be filed in the Asian region, the institutions would, due to increased collaboration or wider markets, reach out to secure IPRs in other regions too. This is a trend seen by WIPO where in the past decade, it was noted that South Korean R&D centres and universities were filing patents mostly in the U.S. and the European Union. Similarly, in Taiwan, the Industrial Technology Research Institute has been selling its patents and portfolios for some time and has initiated contingency litigation in the U.S. against possible U.S. infringers,” said Jagadeesan. “Going ahead, there will be significant emphasis placed on a globally strengthened IP regime which will allow the flow of commerce and investment as well as a better framework of industrial and trade policies, yet be responsible to allow for practices that arrest infringement and exploitation of IPRs by another.”

“I believe that the development of the IP scene in Asia could potentially lead to better harmonization of international IP laws,” said Abraham. “A strong IP infrastructure will create a legal system that allows for the effective sharing of economic resources. As such, Asian countries will be able to rely on their IP to promote their country’s economic development seamlessly.”

Asia’s young universities also take centre stage

THE also releases the Young University Rankings, covering universities around the world which are less than 50 years old. The rankings are based on the same 13 performance indicators.

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, founded in 1991, took the top spot in the 2021 rankings for the first time, beating out 475 institutions from 68 territories. Asian universities have actually been taking the number one spot in the rankings for the past few years.

In its 2022 rankings, Asian institutions stepped aside for a European university, Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris, founded in 2010, to dominate the table. Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, slid to second place. Still, the region did not do badly. Three universities from Hong Kong also made it to the magic circle of 10. Meanwhile, India is one of two nations with 40 universities each in the table, the highest of any country. India had 26 institutions in the list in the 2020 rankings.

According to Wong, these young universities’ edge over their older and more established counterparts lies in their being “dynamic, disruptive, agile and ability to attract similar students with similar mindsets.”

“Although older institutions have established goodwill and reputation associated with their name, younger universities are more likely to have the flexibility and adaptability to reshape the way in which learning takes place,” said Abraham. “They may have the freedom to try new education models. New programmes at new universities allow for Asian academic programmes to be placed at the forefront of education institutions as most Asian universities are in developing economies that have not fulfilled their economic potentials. New universities that offer more dynamic and current courses may be able to come up with new alternative intellectual policies, especially in research.”

“There are a large number of young universities in the Asia-Pacific region – especially in the field of science and technology – and these institutions tend to have the fastest-growing high-quality scientific research output because they seem to have clearer goals and more independent researchers,” said Zheng.

“On the one hand, these young institutions, such as Westlake University in China and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, may be based on the favourable local economic development conditions I mentioned. But on the other hand, they have some common practices, such as recruiting faculty not based on qualifications, willingness to let researchers run their own laboratories independently, etc. They all focus on specific areas of science as well as build unique institutional personalities to attract top researchers to compete with the more established universities,” she added.

There are other university rankings aside from THE World University Rankings and Young University Rankings.

One of these is the QS University Rankings: Top 50 Under 50 whose 2021 edition also has Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, at the top.

Another is the Reuters Top 75, which ranks the most innovative universities in Asia-Pacific. Seoul National University reigned in its 2019 rankings, with criteria including the volume of patent filings and research paper citations. Universities from China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore rounded out the top 20.

“I think this competition among young universities will sprout further competition in terms of research, invention and IP assets,” said Zheng.

Will this trend involving universities from Asia continue even after the Covid-19 pandemic?

“I think this will be wait and see as the pandemic has caused a shift in talent trends and it is difficult to see with all the additional geopolitical aspects as well,” said Wong.

“It is difficult to fathom if the surveys have taken the pandemic situation into account,” said Jagadeesan, “and if it was factored in their analysis of the results.”

However, Jagadeesan added that developments in the region, which include increased budget allocations for education, ability to raise capital among the universities and other favourable opportunities cannot be discounted.

The writing is on the wall. Top notch universities from Asia are slowly but surely making their presence felt in the global map of academic institutions. As they establish their footing among the best from the western world, one can only anticipate what this will lead to in terms of regional and global innovation. Whatever this will be, changes are bound to happen in the region, nonetheless – in academe and in the IP world.

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