A research university is a university that is committed to research as a central part of its mission. It does not matter whether the institution is public or private, or how the research is funded. Such universities have a strong focus on research and often have well known names. Undergraduate courses at many research universities are often academic rather than vocational and may not prepare students for particular careers, but many employers value degrees from research universities because they teach fundamental life skills such as critical thinking. Globally, research universities are predominantly public universities, with notable exceptions being the United States and Japan.
Institutions of higher education that are not research universities (or do not aspire to that designation, such as liberal arts colleges) instead place more emphasis on student instruction or other aspects of tertiary education, and their faculties are under less pressure to publish or perish.
It is also possible for a research university to combine both functions, hosting in effect a liberal arts college for undergraduates while maintaining a heavy focus on research in its graduate degree programs, as is commonplace in the American Ivy League institutions.
The concept of the modern research university first arose in early 19th-century Germany, where Wilhelm von Humboldt championed his vision of Einheit von Lehre und Forschung (the unity of teaching and research), as a means of producing an education that focused on the main areas of knowledge (the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities) rather than on the previous goals of the university education, which was to develop an understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness.
Roger L. Geiger, a historian specializing in the history of higher education in the United States, has argued that "the model for the American research university was established by five colonial colleges chartered before the American Revolution (Harvard, Yale, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Columbia); five state universities (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and California); and five private institutions conceived from their inception as research universities (MIT, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and Chicago)." In turn, research universities were essential to the establishment of American hegemony by the end of the 20th century. In particular, Columbia and Harvard were instrumental in the development of the American film industry (Hollywood), MIT and Stanford were leaders in building the American military–industrial complex, and Berkeley and Stanford played a central role in the development of Silicon Valley. Since the 1960s, American research universities—and in particular, the leading American public research university system, the University of California—have served as models for research universities around the world.
John Taylor defines the key characteristics of successful research universities as:
- "Presence of pure and applied research"
- "Delivery of research-led teaching"
- "Breadth of academic disciplines"
- "High proportion of postgraduate research programmes"
- "High levels of external income"
- "An international perspective"
Philip Altbach defines a different, although similar, set of key characteristics for what research universities need to become successful:
- At the top of the academic hierarchy in a differentiated higher education system and receiving appropriate support
- Overwhelmingly public institutions
- Little competition from non-university research institutions, unless these have string connections to the universities
- More funding than other universities to attract the best staff and students and support research infrastructure
- Adequate and sustained budgets
- Potential for income generation from student fees and intellectual property
- Suitable facilities
- Academic freedom
A 2012 National Academies of Science report defined research universities, in the US context, as having values of intellectual freedom, initiative and creativity, excellence, and openness, with such additional characteristics as:
- Being large and comprehensive – Clark Kerr's "multiversity"
- Emphasizing the undergraduate residential experience (flagged specifically as distinguishing US research universities from those in continental Europe)
- Integrating graduate education with research
- Having faculty engaged in research and scholarship
- Conducting research at high levels
- Having enlightened and bold leadership
Global university rankings use metrics that primarily measure research to rank universities. Some also have criteria for inclusion based on the concept of a research university such as teaching at both undergraduate and postgraduate level and conducting work in multiple faculties (QS World University Rankings), or teaching undergraduates, having a research output of more than 1000 research papers over 5 years, and no more than 80% of activity in a single subject area (Times Higher Education World University Rankings).
The QS World University Ranking for 2019 included 1011 research universities. The region with the highest number was Europe, with 39.9%, followed by Asia Pacific with 26.5%, the US and Canada with 18.1%, Latin America with 9.3% and the Middle East and Africa with 6.4%. All regions except the Middle East and Africa were represented in the top 100. The largest number of new entrants to the rankings were from Eastern Europe, followed by the Middle East. By individual country, the US has the most institutions with 156, followed by the UK with 76, Germany with 45, and Japan with 44. The top 200 shows a similar pattern with the US having 48 universities, the UK 29 and Germany 12. By comparison, the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (2015) identifies 115 US universities as "Doctoral Universities: Highest Research Activity" and a further 107 as "Doctoral Universities: Higher Research Activity", while Altbach estimated that there were around 220 research universities in the US in 2013.
The Academic Ranking of World Universities shows a similar distribution, with 198 of their 500 ranked institutions in 2017 coming from Europe, 164 from the Americas, 132 from Asia/Oceania and 6 from Africa. Again, all regions except Africa are represented in the top 100, although the Americas are represented solely by universities from the US and Canada. The US again has the most universities from a single country, 135, followed by China with 57, the UK with 38 and Germany with 37. The top 200 shows the same ordering as the QS ranking: the US with 70 followed by the UK with 20 and Germany with 15. Times Higher Education only gives a breakdown by country and only for its top 200; this again has the US top, with 62, followed by the UK with 31, Germany with 20 and the Netherlands with 13. The top 200 features one university from Africa (the University of Cape Town), but none from Latin America. The U.S. News and World Report Best Global Universities Ranking 2018 gives numbers by country for the 1250 universities ranked: the US is again top, with 221, followed by China with 136, Japan with 76 and the UK with 73.
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