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.
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.