Why so much emphasis on research in universities?

One of the great assets of the United States is its hugely diverse higher education system. While all Australia’s public universities are (at least in theory) large and comprehensive research universities, their US equivalents enrol only 25-30% of American higher education students. But increasingly US institutions with little research history are starting to become research active, and this NBER paper seeks to explain why. As summarised by Inside Higher Education these are the possible reasons (more detail in the link):

* Students gravitate toward research orientations.
* Research makes professors better teachers.
* Research-oriented professors help sort students by being poor teachers.
* Research quality has become a proxy for teaching quality.
* Altruism. “Knowledge is a classic public good”
* Faculty members like to do research.
* Envy and prestige.

I hadn’t heard of the very cynical third suggestion before – that poor teaching by researchers confuses weaker students and causes them to fail or drop out, helping the ‘screening’ effect of higher education, in which what is learnt is not actually of any great value but an ability to get through university signals to employers that graduates have desirable attributes of intelligence, persistence, etc. While this may be an effect of increased research orientation, I very much doubt it is an explanation for it, and the NBER paper offers no evidence for it.
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