Time to re-examine the Humboldtian model, says Schmidt

Funding designed around a ‘false premise’ that every university is research-intensive, says Nobel laureate

March 11, 2020
Brian Schmidt
Source: Getty

One of the fiercest advocates of research-informed teaching has softened his stance, saying pressures on funding may necessitate a partial retreat from Humboldtian principles.

Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said the Humboldtian tradition – where education is informed by research – was an important concept for research-intensive universities. “But I don’t think every university needs to be research-intensive,” he told Times Higher Education. “And we need to come to terms with that.

“If you’re an institution that is trying to create research leaders, that teaching is most effectively done through the Humboldtian model. But 90 per cent of the students who need a university education are not going to be research leaders. Our system is sort of designed around a false premise that we are all research-intensive.”

Professor Schmidt is believed to be the only serving university leader with a Nobel Prize, after sharing the 2011 gong for physics. Addressing the 2018 Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, he warned that backing off from research-led teaching was the start of a slippery slope.

A wholesale adoption of teaching-only academics would sever the teaching-research nexus and trigger a “dangerous and unsustainable” cycle where future students would be “completely decoupled from the research of the day”, he told the event in Singapore.

But, speaking on the sidelines of the 2020 Universities Australia conference in Canberra, Professor Schmidt said that the sector had reached an “uncomfortable state”.

“Once you start having a cycle where you’re not being taught by the people at the bleeding edge, you just dumb the whole system down,” he said. “Getting that balance right [is] a problem. We need to produce research leaders, and research-led teaching is important for that, but it’s not important for the average graduate. That’s the challenge.”

Chairing a panel at the Canberra conference examining higher education policy, Professor Schmidt asked whether it was now “reasonable…to expect everyone in the university to be applying for research grants”. He questioned the “return on investment to the nation” when people generated 100-plus page applications for grants they had less than a one-in-five chance of securing.

“I subscribe to the notion of a Humboldtian university at least for some universities. But if you’re going to train 300,000 domestic students, do all of them need that? Do we need to reset our sights and say there’s research-led teaching and there’s non-research-led teaching? Because research-led teaching is expensive,” he said.

Andrew Norton, professor in the practice of higher education at ANU, said that university teaching warranted respect as a profession in its own right. But that suggestion encountered “huge cultural and industrial resistance” within universities.

“It’s almost as if [academics] accept the precariousness and maybe the low pay of academia because you get to do interesting research on the side,” Professor Norton told the conference. “A teaching-only academic, despite what [some] universities might say, is probably not regarded by colleagues as at quite the same level as a research-only or teaching and research academic.”

Professor Schmidt said that teaching-only liberal arts colleges in the US also suffered a “prestige” problem. “People aren’t going there,” he said. “The market seems to be misaligned.

“We need to somehow get into the zeitgeist of the population that a really good education like that is also incredibly valuable. We’ve got to get around the idea of prestige being the research-intensives.”



Print headline: ‘Humboldtian model isn’t for everyone’

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Reader's comments (6)

Perhaps it is time to discuss/explore our definitions of research and consider research into practice and esp inquiry into learning. If we invite everyone to inquire into learning and practice then we will not need to maintain very outdated and artificial boundaries between 'researchers' and 'teaching'. Of course, as the article indicates, this will then require a re-think of practices relating to status and power. This is something that might be a step too far for those keen to maintain their control over others?
A dangerous view: most students when embarking on their studies have no idea whether or not they will be interested enough in their chosen subject to become researchers - let alone if they will have the intellectual capacity to do so. So if universities were to split into research-led and non-research-led, your choice of where to study could limit your options. Moreover, the sheer buzz of excitement good research-led teachning can create is of benefit to all students whatever career path they wish to follow; it is part and parcel of helping them develop the open and enquiring mind that a university education is supposted to deliver.
People choose now where to go based on many factors. And sometimes, society chooses for them via tracks and testing. Everything is a limiter at some point. Research, like mathematics, is for a very small percentage of society. One statistic is that only 1 percent need anything more than basic algebra. As a mathematics and statistics person, that sounds about right to me. When I deal with contractors, they are pretty up on their use of algebra, but likely will never have to solve a quadratic equation. As a person in the research biz for 30 years, nor have I except for helping my son on his homework. Not everyone needs to drive the McLaren, so don't build one model for everyone. I think your comment suggests a liberal arts, rather than a research, program.
The Humboldtian model has played an important role in the maturing of nations and well could continue to play a prominent role in the future. However, higher education isn't the same thing as it was 50 or 75 years ago. Our colleague, Nic Barr, has long said that universities were a different thing when they were educating five percent of the country. But the massification over several generations and the expectation—if not the marketing—of higher education for the masses has markedly changed higher education's role. It has moved from a place of critical thinking and a "higher" education for the sake of society to a more pedestrian vocational role. This is an argument many people do not appreciate but it remains, nonetheless, true: people go to university in the hopes of a better job/life. And while some may go to have a great time for several years, that's not the primary reason. It is about building a better life, and we've made it abundantly clear that the road to career and personal happiness is through higher education. This is, of course, fallacious in a number of ways, but as long as the economics point to more money, people will hold on to that truth.
I would suggest that if Universities focused as much on research informed teaching (understanding what makes learning effective) as opposed to research-led teaching (connected to current projects and interests) that would have a greater impact on learner experience. And there can be a disconnect between the complexity of focused post doc research and the lower levels of study within undergraduate degrees which complicates the connection between the two anyway.
This article is _very_ focused on the physical sciences, where -- yes -- cutting edge research is expensive. However, in the social sciences and humanities (which, frankly, are undervalued and undersold in a world filled with "social humans" who need their problems solved, too), research costs are basically those of "time" and "access to published materials" (plus, in the social sciences, access to participant populations). "Time" is costly for everyone, but "populations" are less so, and the costs of "access to publications" have plummeted in the digital age. We might rightly question whether we need more research professors in the social sciences and humanities, but that's not what learning to perform social-science and humanities research is (or should, or needs to be) about. Social-sciences and humanities research is about understanding _people_, and while the _applications_ of such understanding are not always considered in university courses, perhaps they should be. Yes, we know that (idealistically) universities should not be obligated to produce "useful" graduates; or we know that "understanding one's self and others" is, in fact, quite "useful" in many various ways (if not easily quantifiable for the bean counters). But "real-world applications" catch people's attention, and since this article largely ignores the social sciences and humanities, perhaps people's attention needs to be caught. So if we are going to have people -- regardless of their professions, occupations, employments, etc. -- who are going to understand themselves and others, who are going to be able to use that understanding to analyze information, and to develop, propose, and implement solutions in conjunction with others, then getting them to learn the basic competences of social sciences and humanities research are going to be vital.