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The case for research universities

S. M. Rayhanul Islam | May 18, 2018 00:00:00

Among the total educational institutes of a country, universities play the critical role in producing skilled human resources. Besides the mission of teaching-learning, the modern universities now have a new identity as the locus of knowledge creation through research on meeting the diverse challenges in society. A quick check reveals that most of the best universities in the world are research universities; because a research university typically attracts the best researchers and scholars, most research funds and has the best reputation globally. A research university is an institute in which original research and scholarship are an integral and major part of the institution's mission. The faculty members at a research university are not simply teachers, but rather are active contributors to what is taught, thought, and practised.

In the book 'The Research University in Today's Society', scientist, investor and philanthropist Dr. Gerald Chan examines the role of philanthropy in the rapidly changing university education environment. The book is mainly the outcome of a lecture by the author delivered at the University College London (UCL). Dr Chan's thought-provoking lecture ranges from pre-Enlightenment beliefs to the invention by Steve Jobs of the first Apple Macs, to demonstrate the vital role of universities in the progress of humanity. He proposes that society will be short-changed if the purpose of the universities is seen as human resource rather than humanity. There is no doubt that university research is now the most powerful impulse for human progress. If the research function of universities produces innovations, it is the educational function of them that produces the human talent which will sustain innovations as well as transform innovations into substantial benefits to the wider society.

The modern universities are confronted with a tension: offering a liberal education versus professional training. Dr. Gerald Chan believes that society and economy are best served by people who are both civilised by being liberally educated and empowered by being professionally trained. He also draws our attention towards two conditions necessary for university teaching and research. First, a university must be a place of inclusiveness and tolerance. The faculty should be protected by academic freedom. The university's mission is to open minds, not to close them. Second, in order to preserve the richness that comes with diversity and contradictions, the university must have adequate resources, primarily the financial ones.

Dr. Chan argues that the independence of universities is crucial to maintaining the balance between their dual role as engines of the economy and places of curiosity-driven research. Government usually assists higher education for the sake of the economy and regulates the universities as a player in the economy. A very critical question is how modern universities can maintain their independence when they are totally dependent on the government for their funding. History shows, the author observes, that the relationship between politicians and universities has always been a love-hate one. The politicians love the university as an engine for economic growth and as a brain trust for the establishment, but few politicians can warm up to the idea of the university being a sanctuary to establishment's most fierce critics, to its being a safe place for those who dare to speak the truth when truth is inconvenient, or people who dare to speak their minds even when their views are away from the standard norm. "If government was the only source of funding for the university then there must be times when the dog will bite the hand that feeds it", argues Dr. Gerald Chan.

The author draws our attention to the public-private partnership model followed by the most American universities, which is a key factor in their impressive performance in the recent years. In rankings by any number of criteria, the US universities dominate the top spots globally. Further dissection of the data shows that it is the private universities in America that have done particularly well. These universities receive no funding from the government other than competing for research grants; neither do they just rely on tuition fees to sustain their excellence. The high quality of their educational offerings is made possible by their endowment income. Dr. Chan rightly uses Harvard University (where he has successfully completed his Master's, PhD and Post-Doctoral studies) as an example of how the endowment is put to good use since its endowment is the largest of all universities in the world. Harvard's admission process is exclusively need-blind. All that matters is the quality of the applicants. This allows Harvard to pick the most desirable applicants relative to its selection criteria and irrespective of the applicants' financial means. Selecting students based on their ability to pay, the author observes, is a sure formula for a university to go downhill.

"Higher education is not cheap; but what is more expensive to society are the consequences of not supporting its universities… In a democratic society, governments come and go, and government funding priorities come and go, but a properly managed endowment endures," rightly observes Dr. Gerald Chan, the author of this very timely and valuable book.

S. M. Rayhanul Islam is an independent researcher.

[email protected]


The Research University in Today's Society

By Gerald Chan

Published in 2017 by UCL Press, University College London

ISBN: 978-1-911307-60-0 (pdf)

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