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Research university

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Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) is responsible for the Humboldtian model of higher education.
Nuclear research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a research university, in Madison, Wisconsin, United States, May 2005
Switzerland spends 0.76% of GDP on university research funding as of 2017, some 3.8x the ratio of the United States (0.20%).[1] ETH Zurich, founded in 1854, is the leading Swiss research university by its number of scholars and publications.[2]
Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, founded in 1876, is considered the first research university in the United States[3] and as of fiscal year 2020 had been the national leader in annual research and development spending for over four decades.[4]

A research university or a research-intensive university is a university that is committed to research as a central part of its mission.[5][6][7][8] They are "the key sites of knowledge production", along with "intergenerational knowledge transfer and the certification of new knowledge" through the awarding of doctoral degrees, and continue to be "the very center of scientific productivity".[9] They can be public or private, and often have well-known brand names.[10]

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.[11] Globally, research universities are overwhelmingly public institutions, while some countries like the United States and Japan also have well-known private research institutions.[5]

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 faculty members are under less pressure to publish or perish.[12]


19th century[edit]

The concept of the research university first arose in early 19th-century Prussia in 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.[13][14]

Roger L. Geiger, "the leading historian of the American research university,"[15] has argued that "the model for the American research university was established by five of the nine 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)."[16][17] The American research university first emerged in the late 19th century, when these fifteen institutions began to graft graduate programs derived from the German model onto undergraduate programs derived from the British model.[16]

20th century[edit]

Research universities were essential to the establishment of American hegemony by the end of the 20th century.[18] Most importantly, Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, and Princeton (along with Birmingham and Cambridge in the UK) directly participated in the creation of the first nuclear weapons (the Manhattan Project).[19][20][21] Besides that, Columbia and Harvard were instrumental in the early development of the American film industry (Hollywood),[22] MIT and Stanford were leaders in building the American military–industrial complex[23] and developing artificial intelligence,[24] and Berkeley and Stanford played a central role in the development of Silicon Valley.[25] The "most prestigious group of research universities" in the United States is the Association of American Universities.[26]

Since the 1960s, American research universities, especially the leading American public research university system, the University of California,[6][27][28] have served as models for research universities around the world.[29][30] Having one or more universities based on the American model (including the use of English as a lingua franca) is a badge of "social progress and modernity" for the contemporary nation-state.[31] The Americans' continued dominance into the early 21st century has forced their European counterparts to confront the urgent need for reform to avoid "declining into an advanced form of feeder colleges for the best American universities."[32]


John Taylor, Professor of Higher Education Management at the University of Liverpool, defines the key characteristics of successful research universities as:[8]

  • "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:[33]

  • 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 strong 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
  • Autonomy
  • Academic freedom

A 2012 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report defined research universities, in the American context, as having values of intellectual freedom, initiative and creativity, excellence, and openness, with such additional characteristics as:[34]

  • Being large and comprehensive – Clark Kerr's "multiversity"
  • Emphasizing the undergraduate residential experience (flagged specifically as distinguishing American 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.[35][36][37] 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),[38] 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).[39]

Worldwide distribution[edit]

The QS World University Ranking for 2021 included 1002 research universities. The region with the highest number was Europe, with 39.8%, followed by Asia/Pacific with 26.7%, the US and Canada with 15.6%, Latin America with 10.8% and the Middle East and Africa with 7%. 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 East Asia and Eastern Europe, followed by Southern Europe.[40] By individual country, the US has the most institutions with 151, followed by the UK with 84, China with 51, and Germany with 45. The top 200 shows a similar pattern with the US having 45 universities, the UK 26 and Germany 12.[41] 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.[5][42]

The Academic Ranking of World Universities shows a similar distribution, with 185 of their 500 ranked institutions in 2020 coming from Europe, 161 from the Americas, 149 from Asia/Oceania and five from Africa. All regions except Africa are represented in the top 100, although the Americas are represented solely by universities from the United States and Canada.[43] In 2023, the US has the most universities in the top 500 from a single country, 120, followed by China with 98, the UK with 38 and Germany with 31.[44] The top 200 shows the similar pattern: the US with 61 followed by China with 36 and the UK with 20.[45]

The 2024 Times Higher Education only gives a breakdown by country and only for its top 200; this again has the U.S. at the top with 56, followed by the UK with 25, Germany with 21, and China with 13. The top 200 features one university from Africa, the University of Cape Town in South Africa, but none from Latin America.[46] The U.S. News & World Report Best Global Universities Ranking 2021 gives numbers by country for the 1500 universities ranked from 86 countries: the U.S. is again top, with 255, followed by China with 176 and the UK with 87.[47] The 2020 CWTS Leiden Ranking includes 1,176 universities in the rankings from 65 countries: China tops the list for the first time, with 204, followed by the U.S. with 198, the UK with 58 and Germany with 54.[48]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ "Best Universities in Switzerland 2022 Ranking". Research.com, 6 June 2021. Accessed 4 December 2023.
  3. ^ Schuessler, Jennifer (9 December 2020). "Johns Hopkins Reveals That Its Founder Owned Slaves". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 14 December 2020. Retrieved 12 April 2021.
  4. ^ June, Audrey Williams (11 January 2022). "Where Research Spending Keeps Going Up". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 21 April 2023.
  5. ^ a b c "The role of research universities in developing countries". University World News. 11 August 2013. Archived from the original on 5 September 2017. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  6. ^ a b Altbach, Philip G. (2011). "The Past, Present, and Future of the Research University". In Altbach, Philip G.; Salmi, Jamil (eds.). The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank. pp. 11–32. ISBN 978-0-8213-8806-8. Archived from the original on 15 October 2022. Retrieved 15 October 2022.
  7. ^ Steven Sample (2 December 2002). "The Research University of the 21st Century: What Will it Look Like?". University of Southern California. Archived from the original on 23 February 2021. Retrieved 8 August 2018.
  8. ^ a b John Taylor (21 June 2006). "Managing the Unmanageable: The Management of Research in Research-Intensive Universities". Higher Education Management and Policy. 18 (2). OECD: 3–4. Archived from the original on 23 March 2021. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  9. ^ Powell, Justin J. W.; Fernandez, Frank; Crist, John T.; Dusdal, Jennifer; Zhang, Liang; Baker, David P. (2017). "Introduction: The Worldwide Triumph of the Research University and Globalizing Science". In Powell, Justin J. W.; Fernandez, Frank; Baker, David P. (eds.). The Century of Science: The Global Triumph of the Research University. Bingley: Emerald Publishing. pp. 1–36. ISBN 9781787144699. Archived from the original on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 6 November 2022. (At p. 8.)
  10. ^ O'Shaughnessy, Lynn (2012). The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education. pp. 132–136. ISBN 9780132944694. Retrieved 30 March 2023.
  11. ^ Andreatta, Britt (2011). Navigating the Research University: A Guide for First-Year Students (3rd ed.). Boston: Wadsworth. p. 136. ISBN 9780495913788. Archived from the original on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 5 December 2020.
  12. ^ Irons, Jessica G.; Buskist, William (2009). "Chapter 9: Preparing for a Career at a Teaching Institution". In Davis, Stephen F.; Giordano, Peter J.; Licht, Carolyn A. (eds.). Your Career in Psychology: Putting Your Graduate Degree to Work. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 117–132. ISBN 9781405179423. Archived from the original on 13 November 2020. Retrieved 6 August 2020. This source refers to research universities as R1, a common shorthand for the highest level of American research universities recognized by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.
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  14. ^ Menand, Louis; Reitter, Paul; Wellmon, Chad (2017). "General Introduction". The Rise of the Research University: A Sourcebook. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 2–3. ISBN 9780226414850. Archived from the original on 15 February 2017. Retrieved 25 January 2017.
  15. ^ Macintyre, Stuart (2010). The Poor Relation: A History of Social Sciences in Australia. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. p. 333. ISBN 9780522857757. Archived from the original on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 8 August 2022.
  16. ^ a b Crow, Michael M.; Dabars, William B. (2015). Designing the New American University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 17–18. ISBN 9781421417233. Retrieved 28 May 2017. The quoted sentence is Crow and Dabars' paraphrasing of Geiger's analysis.
  17. ^ Geiger, Roger L. (1986). To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American Research Universities, 1900–1940 (2004 ed.). New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. p. 3. ISBN 9781412840088. Archived from the original on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 28 May 2021.
  18. ^ Marginson, Simon; Ordorika, Imanol (2011). "'El central volumen de la fuerza': Global Hegemony in Higher Education and Research". In Calhoun, Craig J.; Rhoten, Diana (eds.). Knowledge Matters: The Public Mission of the Research University. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 67–129. ISBN 9780231151146. Archived from the original on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 9 February 2021.
  19. ^ Herken, Gregg (2003). Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 48. ISBN 0-8050-6589-X. Archived from the original on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 27 February 2023.
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  21. ^ "Britain". Voices of the Manhattan Project. Atomic Heritage Foundation. Retrieved 20 December 2023.
  22. ^ Decherney, Peter (2017). Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 6–11. ISBN 9780231133760. Archived from the original on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 11 August 2019.
  23. ^ Leslie, Stuart W. (1993). The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 11–12. ISBN 9780231079587. Archived from the original on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 11 August 2019.
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  25. ^ Scott, W. Richard; Lara, Bernardo; Biag, Manuelito; Ris, Ethan; Liang, Judy (2017). "The Regional Economy of the San Francisco Bay Area". In Scott, W. Richard; Kirst, Michael W. (eds.). Higher Education and Silicon Valley: Connected But Conflicted. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 65. ISBN 9781421423081. Archived from the original on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 11 August 2019.
  26. ^ Smith, Dean O. (2011). Managing the Research University. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 78. ISBN 9780199793259. Retrieved 3 December 2023.
  27. ^ Kerr, Clark (2001). The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949–1967, Volume 1. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 413. ISBN 9780520223677. Archived from the original on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
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  29. ^ Graham, Hugh Davis; Diamond, Nancy (1997). The Rise of American Research Universities: Elites and Challengers in the Postwar Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 9. ISBN 9780801880636. Archived from the original on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 7 April 2020.
  30. ^ Vest, Charles M. (2007). The American Research University from World War II to World Wide Web: Governments, the Private Sector, and the Emerging Meta-University. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 7. ISBN 9780520934047. Archived from the original on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 25 January 2022.
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