The dangers of limiting research to elite universities

With regard to our recent debate with Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit on research publishing, there are some points of agreement; however, key points of disagreement remain.

Based on what has been expressed thus far, we, along with Altbach and De Wit seemingly agree that: there is a crisis in publications, including Western biases in peer review and dominance in top journals worldwide; tremendous pressure is placed on higher education institutions to behave as research universities; global rankings are a powerful influence in shaping higher education missions, policies and activities; and diversity is a valuable aspect of the knowledge creation process.

While we generally concur with these observations, we respectfully disagree with Altbach and De Wit’s suggested approach to these problems – ie, differentiating which universities are responsible for published research, while others are rewarded mostly for teaching. We are fundamentally troubled by the implications of such a suggestion, as mentioned above.

Democratising knowledge creation

Reserving the research function to any country’s top research universities limits participation, which will inevitably increase stratification within countries. Already, there is abundant research (including from scholars in non-research universities) that has documented ways that individuals of minoritised races, ethnicities and socio-economic status are disadvantaged in accessing higher education.

While Altbach and De Wit state that the problem is the publishing system and not the scholars, these issues are intertwined. In the case of the United States, rising institutional inequality is a component of individual-level inequality, with a patterned sorting of students to institutions of varying status.

In other words, research universities do more than research. They are also the most selective in admissions, limiting social mobility and favouring individuals of the highest socio-economic status, while disadvantaging ethnic minoritised students by relegating them to lower resourced universities. These demographic concerns also apply to university faculty.

Benefit from other university types

Even as a country with the highest concentration of research universities, the US knowledge society can benefit greatly from other university types. The country’s tribal colleges, for example, employ a high proportion of Native American professors, while this population represents less than 1% of faculty numbers in all US higher education institutions.

Should their rewards then be relegated to disseminating (ie, teaching) knowledge produced by faculty in predominantly white research universities? Indigenous knowledge challenges and extends the limitations of Eurocentric theory, methods and interpretations. Their knowledge production would be severely weakened based on Altbach and De Wit’s recommendation, while the broader academy would be deprived of much needed Native American scholarship.

Limiting research to elite universities will not change the current global order. Knowledge and wealth are inextricably linked. In recent debates about how to address global inequalities, economists including Thomas Piketty, Angus Deaton, Anthony Atkinson and Joseph Stiglitz agree on the importance of knowledge to change the distribution dynamics of global wealth.

Joseph Stiglitz writes in The Price of Inequality that current intellectual property regimes benefit the most privileged countries, institutions and individuals because they are designed to prevent the free-flow of knowledge.

‘Academic capitalism’

The contrasts are particularly evident in Latin America. According to World Bank data on the payments and purchases of intellectual property by the US, Brazil, Argentina and Chile (Balance of Payment, US$) during 2017, the US profited by US$79 billion, while Brazil lost US$4.5 billion, Argentina US$2.1 billion and Chile US$1.4 billion.

This data demonstrates the unequal financial dynamics of the knowledge economy, exemplifying the vast array of ‘academic capitalism’, already well established by Sheila Slaughter, Larry Leslie and Gary Rhoades.

In this case, current research output produced by these Latin American countries is insufficient compared to their intellectual property consumption, netting a financial deficit, while the US profits greatly. Given these current inequalities, maintaining the same global structure and the same national stratification, especially for low knowledge producers, is not the answer.

We are far past the early industrial revolutions whereby higher education trains knowledge-based workers. Research and teaching do not have to be mutually exclusive and faculty work in these areas is not always zero-sum.

Research, teaching and service can be dynamic

Instead, the traditional roles of research, teaching and service can be dynamic, innovative, interdisciplinary and borderless. As Burton Clark asserted decades ago, research and teaching (and student learning) possess an “essential compatibility” and research engagement is “the means of teaching and the pathway offered for student learning”.

In order for disadvantaged groups, which tend to be in non-research universities, to successfully participate, whether by countries or communities, knowledge creation becomes fundamental to disrupt dominant discourses and address social inequities.

Defragmentation threats

Clark also warned, however, of future defragmentation of the research-teaching-learning nexus when research and teaching are emphasised separately. We can observe such threats when there are designated research institutes or teaching universities, when faculty are classified as research versus teaching faculty, when criteria for tenure isolates research from teaching and when professional programmes are designed for non-research students.

Such behaviours fuel the current ‘vertical differentiation’ in which research is reserved for the privileged. Concentrating research in research universities would exacerbate research drift.

Publications lagging behind

In the case of India, research was compulsory for all university instructors under its controversial Academic Performance Indicators. Despite the publication requirement, India’s policy had little to no influence on top journals (such as the Review of Higher Education), but did lead to problems associated with predatory journal publishing.

As India experienced, imposing research publications is not the simple answer, but neither is removing most of its higher education sector from the knowledge creation process.

India is projected to surpass China as the most populous country by 2024. Despite its position as one of the five emerging economies among BRICS, in terms of India’s aspirations as a global knowledge producer, the country has hardly kept pace in its research and innovation spending and, as a direct consequence, its research publications are also lagging behind in comparison to other emerging countries.

According to Simon Marginson’s keynote address at the recent Consortium of Higher Education Researchers’ conference, the opposite is true in China, a country that has invested heavily in R&D but also produced its own peer-reviewed journals. This could be an example of the importance of strengthening the local systems of knowledge production to eventually reach what Arjun Appadurai calls “cosmopolitanism from below”.

In sum, simple solutions do not fix complex problems – and may create even worse challenges. The message cannot be to disincentivise particular university types or particular faculty from research. Reducing the number of research publications may weaken the market for predatory publishers and might address some forms of corruption but would, more concerningly, also limit the participation of marginalised groups.

The problem with such utilitarian approaches is that they do not change the status quo and serve to justify cultural hegemony, as we explained in our previous commentary.

Research capacity-building integral to teaching

In the current knowledge society, students as well as scholars, especially in non-research universities, should learn how to be active contributors of knowledge, rather than mere consumers of it. Especially for low-income countries lagging in research production, research capacity building should be integral to teaching.

Additional promising strategies include investing in and monitoring research funding, creating reputable publication outlets and monitoring predatory journals, while educating students about the difference, and rewarding meaningful research that addresses local needs and informs local and international audiences.

Universities, policy-makers and faculty will continue to grapple with the who, what, where and how of academic publishing. We encourage readers to engage with these issues further, taking into consideration the range of arguments and options presented to best address the publishing crises in the short term and knowledge production in the longer term.

Jenny J Lee is a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, Tucson, United States, and visiting scholar at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Alma Maldonado-Maldonado is a researcher at the Departamento de Investigaciones Educativas (DIE)-CINVESTAV, Mexico City, Mexico.