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.

I think the main explanations are that academics like to do research, and this has helped construct research as the prestige driver in higher education, a process facilitated (as the NBER paper notes) by much stronger measures of research strength than teaching quality.

In Australia, this process has been taken much further by adding the force of policy to these tendencies within academia. Research funding has been allocated on a competitive basis, while teaching funding has simply been handed out with no competitive element, creating incentives to focus on research. Research has also been written into the legal definition of a university (or at least of new universities).

As the NBER paper reports, there is no evidence that research universities do a better job teaching their students than non-research institutions, though this is partly because measures of teaching performance are hard to come by. But the research institutions tend to do worse in student satisfaction surveys. My intuition is that whatever synergies are generated by combining teaching and research functions are on average outweighed by the lost gains from specialisation.

From an Australian policy perspective, I think the decision to focus the demand-driven funding system on the public universities is a mistake. I have previously offered reasons here and here.

But the fact that all the public universities are research universities (to admittedly widely varying degrees) is another reason against the government’s decision. It adopts a model that is both more expensive and unlikely to be optimal for the more borderline students who need to be enrolled to generate significant growth. While it is too cynical about academics and those who run universities to say that they are deliberately trying to confuse students with research, these students are more likely to need the skills a specialised teacher might bring to learn the basics than they are to need someone leading knowledge development in his or her discipline.

9 thoughts on “Why so much emphasis on research in universities?

  1. “there is no evidence that research universities do a better job teaching their students than non-research institutions”
    Of course, in the US, it’s also the case that non-research institutions don’t do research. In addition, quite unlike Australia, the research institutions tend to be far less anachronistic, and take postgraduates from anywhere but their own institute. In Australia, the first choice for postgraduates comes from your own undergraduate pool. Thus, if you want to do postgraduate studies in something with high demand, make sure you do your undergraduate there, otherwise it may be bad luck for you. Or more simply: “our undergraduate courses are a good advertisement for our postgraduate courses”.
    Yet another difference is that in the US, the amount of knowledge you need for postgraduate courses is pretty limited, which is one of the reasons all their postgraduate stuff takes so long to do. My feeling is that the only fair comparison would be to compare what Australians get from their degrees versus what Americans get. If Americans are getting less from their undergraduate degrees, then obviously the level of knowledge you need from your staff is less.
    “My intuition is that whatever synergies are generated by combining teaching and research functions are on average outweighed by the lost gains from specialisation.”
    You are confusing specialization and research. In most areas, you are far better off having a reasonable amount of staff that are specialists at something (irrespective of whether they do research). This allows you to have better and more diverse courses (just think of what an IT course would be like without specialists), versus genericus-genericus courses. Of course, thinking about specialization, a problem with teaching only institutes is that it leads to staff that learnt stuff in the 60s and never got updated, yet still want to teach that (and probably get good ratings for it too). At least if your staff do research, they are forced to stay up to date. Finally, if you just want to cycle through your staff so you actually have specialists, this is going to costs you much more than if you keep the same ones, since they will basically have to be 3-year contract staff or similar.

    I’m also not convinced by “intuition” (although I realize there’s little real data), since students going to different places have highly different expectations. Where I work, for example, our students are highly satisfied, but when we take students from other places, it’s extremely variable, and we know which places are good and bad. I know that from some places the students are as good as ours, but they didn’t give high satisfaction scores to the places they came from — my feeling is there is essentially no correlation between my knowledge of good and bad (which is not too bad) and satisfaction scores.


  2. I thought this post would attract Conrad’s attention. By ‘specialisation’ I don’t mean discipline specialisation so much as the skills and time allocation to teaching as opposed to research. Specialisation has been a key to productivity in every industry; it would be staggering if it wasn’t also true in education unless a content-based synergies argument can be constructed. Certainly there is an impression that some teachers in the old CAEs and the in the TAFEs didn’t/don’t update their knowledge as much as they should, but this is also likely to be true for the many researchers who teach outside their main current research interests and is in both cases a general quality control problem. After all, most workers in the occupations students are headed to don’t do research but keep up to date, because there are professional standards and/or competitive pressures that require them to do so.


  3. I second Andrews comment about the old CAE’s. As a casual tutor there in the late 80’s, the staff were stuck in the 60’s;the time during which most of them had graduated and taught for before returning to their alma mater.Most positions were permanant so it was very difficult to “encourage”change. Once the push happened, several had to take very early retirement and there were two heart attacks, in a staff of about 25, as they moved from teaching typing and office administration to calling themselves a ‘business’ faculty. These staff were ill equiped to respond to the Dawkins reforms personally and professionally, as many had come up through the ranks of their own institution. In fact they felt aggrieved because they had rarely taken university degrees themselves and had signed on for a different life, one without research and further study and publication pressure.


  4. Along these lines, I realise that a PhD is necessary for working at a pure research institution like the Walter and Eliza Hall but could they confer their own qualifications? In other words, Andrew, can a private institution confer higher degrees?


  5. Martha – It is possible for non-universities to award higher degrees (public and private aren’t regulatory categories, though funding depends partly on historical classifications as public or private), but in practice it is rare – to my knowledge only a couple of the theological colleges do so. Walter and Eliza Hall has PhD students, but they are enrolled through the University of Melbourne.


  6. I think we need to make a distinction between scholarship (keeping up with developments in a field) and research (making a contribution to knowledge). As an Australian academic working in US business schools for more than 10 years, I think that research requires scholarship and scholarship translates into the classroom. This benefit occurs even if nobody reads or benefits from the “research”.

    The private benefits of research are also evident to every academic in the US. Research is a global currency for career advancement. Top tier publications are acknowledged all over the world, and generating such publications enables mobility. In fact, the longer an academic is at a given institution, the lower his or her (real) salary will be. In other words, you have to move to get promoted, and research publications are the vehicle.

    So, why do institutions seek to become more research active? I would argue: 1) to participate in rankings 2) to facilitate mobility of faculty and 3) to promote scholarship.

    Just my $0.02 worth.


  7. Of course, all of the above begs the question of whether the resources devoted to research are “efficient” from a societal viewpoint. My guess is the scholarship benefits of research could be obtained in other ways. Andrew also rightly asks whether basic courses don’t benefit from the scholarship effect. The CAE experience is that over 20 years the base knowledge does change and instructors need to re-tool.

    Note also that the US is also using adjunct instructors to teach low level courses. In the business school, these are often practitioners or retired executives with masters degrees teaching large sections of introductory courses (often totaling almost 50% of the EFTSU). These adjuncts are not on tenure-track and have no research expectations.

    Research-active professors tend to teach fewer sections of higher-level courses – so the investment in research may be flowing to the appropriate place.


  8. Universities are stocked by smart people, smart people can justify doing what they like doing, but is it acceptable to use public resource to enhance career opportunities. Lets be honest, as less and less money is available for research an increasing number of published papers really are just so much rubbish written by people with little industrial experience.

    With regard to CAEs, you can’t generalize, some of the best teachers were the old salts, they knew how to teach, and they brought practical experience to the system, sadly that is something that has been lost, and something that is increasingly important as universities take on subjects such as nursing. The failure to update the curriculum was a real issue, but I doubt past research experience would help when you have staff falling of the twig because of old age.


  9. I did my PhD in a “research centre” at a mid-size uni. This center had almost zero interaction with the result of the place, only one of the 20+ PhD students had been there as an undergrad, none of the faculty did any lecturing. However the faculty had the highest publication rates of the entire uni.

    Having a research profile was necessary, but it had very little interaction with the teaching function of the uni.


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