What makes a university innovative?
Humanoid robot HUBO on ceremony of Olympics torch relay at KAIST. Daejeon, South Korea. Source: Shutterstock

Universities often get flak for lagging behind new businesses and technologies.

Higher education sometimes seems to be stuck in its hallowed halls of tradition, holding onto centuries of knowledge, research and tradition. Or, as many would say, stuck in a time rut. The sector has been described as “deadly conservative” to its detriment. The way courses – both undergraduate and graduate – have been structured has remained unchanged for a long, long time.

With this in mind, what does a ranking of the world’s most forward-looking universities actually mean?

In Reuters’ latest Asia’s Most Innovative Universities 2018 ranking, this is defined as institutions that are “doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies, and power new markets and industries”.

Cutting edge? Source: Shutterstock

Digging deeper into the methodology, this pans out to be a measurement that leans heavily on how invested an institution is with patents. Specifically,  number of basic patents filed, patent success, number of international patents filed, patent citations by other patents, impact of patents, proportion of patents cited by other patents, average number of times a journal article has been cited by patents, number of article-to-article citations, percentage of all articles of a university co-authored by commercial entity, total number of journal articles published.

All ten indicators are weighted equally, save for impact of patents and percentage of patents cited by other patents. Each received only half the weighting as they are closely related in measuring the same phenomenon.

The annual ranking was compiled in partnership with data company Clarivate analytics using empirical data, such as patent filings from Derwent Innovation and research paper citations from the Web of Science. The full explanation of the methodology for the 2018 ranking can be found here.

Now that we know how the rankings were conducted, let’s look at the results.

Based on these indicators, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), the University of Tokyo and Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) topped this year’s ranking. KAIST is number one for the third year running.

Korea’s top science and technology institute is the number one university for innovation in the region. Source: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je

Country-wise, South Korea dominated the list with 20 institutions, followed by Japan (19 institutions) and China (27 institutions, including three universities from Hong Kong).

Here are the top 20 universities in the ranking:

Rank Institution Country
1 Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology South Korea
2 University of Tokyo Japan
3 Pohang University of Science & Technology (POSTECH) South Korea
4 Seoul National University South Korea
5 Tsinghua University China
6 Osaka University Japan
7 Kyoto University Japan
8 Sungkyunkwan University South Korea
9 Tohoku University Japan
10 National University of Singapore Singapore
11 Hanyang University South Korea
12 Peking University China
13 Yonsei University South Korea
14 Kyushu University Japan
15 Korea University South Korea
16 Tokyo Institute of Technology Japan
17 Fudan University China
18 Keio University Japan
19 Shanghai Jiao Tong University China
20 Gwangju Institute of Science & Technology South Korea

At KAIST, its high volume of influential inventions puts it in this year’s podium position once more. Here, more patents are submitted and frequently cited by external researchers than any other university in the ranking.

Recent research highlights at the top South Korean university include the development of a platinum-based fuel cell; an innovation that could help power electric vehicles more efficiently while reducing pollution when driven.

Interpreting this ranking as an international student

If all those talks about patents above have yet to translate into a clear, concise way for you to interpret the ranking, don’t worry. As a prospective international student, such information can seem highly irrelevant to you at this point in time.

But don’t dismiss it as drivel to explain a buzzword like “innovation”. Take a look at Reuters’s handy comparison tool, which lets you choose two institutions to compare them side by side.

A summary of each institution is provided here, with more elaboration about what the school has been innovating of late. For example, Southeast Asia’s highest-ranked institution the National University of Singapore (10th), has developed a self-sustaining biodigester which can break down organic matter and convert it to heat and energy, which can be stored in batteries that power mobile phones and tablets in a student cafeteria. It has also collaborated with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba to develop technologies in preparation for a cashless Singapore.

Make use of the tool’s nifty visual representations, too. This can give you a quick idea and comparison between two institutions in terms of their total patents filed, success rate of patents granted and the commercial impact that has emerged from each institution’s research.

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