Altbach y de Wit sobre WHEC 20022
Junio 10, 2022

Research mission of universities – Missing from UNESCO roadmap

Does UNESCO think that the traditional research mission of universities is relevant in the 21st century? Apparently not.

Beyond Limits: New ways to reinvent higher education, the roadmap proposed at the World Higher Education Conference 2022, which recently concluded in Barcelona in Spain, only very marginally and mostly indirectly mentions the research mission.

Downplaying, or indeed almost entirely forgetting, the university’s role in research is a huge lapse – and does not serve science, scholarship or the future of higher education well.

Nor is much said about several other central issues for higher education – among them financing the academic enterprise and the burgeoning private higher education sector.

Another lapse is internationalisation – which is included, but the emphasis is almost exclusively on mobility and recognition of qualifications and partnerships, with no reference to internationalisation of the curriculum at home and global learning for all.

Emphasising higher education as a public good and a human right sounds nice, but is rather naïve when it ignores two key themes: massification, resulting in a rising private sector; and the knowledge economy, resulting on the one hand in increased inequality and on the other a growing need for research.

On the positive side, much else is usefully highlighted – academic freedom, sustainability, a holistic student learning experience, inclusiveness, diversity and other worthwhile and important themes. What is also positive is the call for more research on and innovation in higher education associated with capacity development.

The core functions of a university

It is worth reminding UNESCO, and perhaps the global higher education community in general, that research – especially basic research – has been a central responsibility of universities since the establishment of the University of Berlin in 1810.

Traditionally, the core functions of the modern university are teaching, research and service.

UNESCO seems to have forgotten about the importance of research. This is particularly problematic in the science-based world of the 21st century, including the centrality of the university in the social sciences and humanities, which are key to understanding culture and society and providing the social context of the hard sciences.

As Beyond Limits illustrates, the contemporary university has been asked to take on ever more responsibilities, often in an environment of decreased resources.

Governments, the media and others are constantly asking academia to ‘reinvent itself’ to serve these manifold purposes, in many ways moving an institution that has been remarkably successful over centuries away from its core responsibilities.

Ignoring the importance of research in this process is dangerous. On the contrary, the global challenges threatening our societies, emphasised in the UNESCO declaration, require increased attention and resources on research and research collaboration.

The complexity of the research function

The contribution of universities to research production and to the advancement of science and society is unquestionable, and is crucial in basic research.

One of many illustrations of this contribution is the development of mRNA technologies, which led to the rapid success of COVID-19 vaccines. The Nobel Prize scientists who did the basic research were based in universities and research institutes – and their discoveries were the basis of the applied technology used for the vaccines.

There are endless additional examples.

Universities are the central drivers of research, but in some countries they are not the only homes of research. China, France, Germany, Russia and some other countries have separate, publicly funded research institutions, which are increasingly collaborating or even merging with universities.

In the era of massification, not all universities are research focused. Indeed, only a small number of universities, nearly all of them in the Global North, are research intensive.

In the United States, there are perhaps 300 universities that are seriously engaged in research. In Australia, the Group of Eight are research intensive and the United Kingdom has its Russell Group.

It is entirely appropriate for most universities and most academics to be focused mainly on teaching and applied service to society and the economy.

Yet, the ‘world-class’ research-intensive universities, although being only a small minority, are immensely important to global science and innovation. Their function and role in the global knowledge system do not deserve to be entirely ignored by UNESCO.

Given UNESCO’s traditional emphasis on the Global South and the role of education in socio-economic development, attention should have been paid to the role of research universities and building research capacity in that region, to serve local needs and break the dominance of the Global North in that respect.

Research and research-intensive universities are central to higher education and, crucially, to the future of society and the survival of the planet.

Philip Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow at the Boston College Center for International Higher Education in the United States (e-mail [email protected]), where Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow (e-mail [email protected]).


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