A research university or a research-intensive university is a university that is committed to research as a central part of its mission. They are the most important sites at which knowledge production occurs, along with "intergenerational knowledge transfer and the certification of new knowledge" through the awarding of doctoral degrees. They can be public or private, and often have well-known brand 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 overwhelmingly publicly funded, with notable exceptions being the United States and Japan (although public institutions still predominate).
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.
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.
In turn, research universities were essential to the establishment of American hegemony by the end of the 20th century. Most importantly, Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, and Princeton directly participated in the creation of the first nuclear weapons (the Manhattan Project). Besides that, Columbia and Harvard were instrumental in the early 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—especially the leading American public research university system, the University of California—have served as models for research universities around the world. Their 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."
John Taylor, Professor of Higher Education Management at the University of Liverpool, defines the key characteristics of successful research universities as:
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. 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. 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 185 of their 500 ranked institutions in 2020 coming from Europe, 161 from the Americas, 149 from Asia/Oceania and 5 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. In 2022, the US has the most universities in the top 500 from a single country, 127, followed by China with 83, the UK with 38 and Germany with 31. The top 200 shows the similar pattern: the US with 62 followed by China with 30 and the UK with 21. The Times Higher Education only gives a breakdown by country and only for its top 200; this again has the US top, with 58, followed by the UK with 28, Germany with 22 and China with 11. The top 200 features one university from Africa (the University of Cape Town), but none from Latin America. The U.S. News & World Report Best Global Universities Ranking 2021 gives numbers by country for the 1500 universities ranked from 86 countries: the US is again top, with 255, followed by China with 176 and the UK with 87. 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 US with 198, the UK with 58 and Germany with 54.
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