A research university is a university that is committed to research as a central part of its mission. 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 predominantly public universities, with notable exceptions being the United States and Japan.
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 modern research university first arose in early 19th-century 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.
Roger L. Geiger, a historian specializing in the history of higher education in the United States, has argued that "the model for the American research university was established by five of the nine colonial colleges chartered before the American Revolution (Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, and Pennsylvania); five state universities (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and California); and five private institutions conceived from their inception as research universities (MIT, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and Chicago)." In turn, research universities were essential to the establishment of American hegemony by the end of the 20th century. In particular, Columbia and Harvard were instrumental in the 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. Today, the most prestigious research universities in North America belong to—or aspire to belong to—the Association of American Universities, a selective group of 66 major research universities in the United States and Canada.
Philip Altbach defines a different, although similar, set of key characteristics for what research universities need to become successful:
A 2012 report defined research universities, in the American context, as having values of intellectual freedom, initiative and creativity, excellence, and openness, with such additional characteristics as:
Global university rankings use metrics that primarily measure research to rank universities. Some also have criteria for inclusion based on the concept of a research university such as teaching at both undergraduate and postgraduate level and conducting work in multiple faculties (QS World University Rankings), or teaching undergraduates, having a research output of more than 1000 research papers over 5 years, and no more than 80% of activity in a single subject area (Times Higher Education World University Rankings).
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 (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. The US again has the most universities from a single country, 206, followed by China with 168, the UK with 65 and Germany with 49. The top 200 shows the similar pattern: the US with 65 followed by China with 24, the UK with 20 and Germany with 10. Times Higher Education only gives a breakdown by country and only for its top 200; this again has the US top, with 62, followed by the UK with 31, Germany with 20 and the Netherlands with 13. The top 200 features one university from Africa (the University of Cape Town), but none from Latin America. The U.S. News and 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.