American Research Universities: Their Historical Strengths and Global Applicability

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While working at a major research university in the United States over the past decade, I observed with considerable interest how higher education systems around the world have sought to emulate the key strengths of American research universities. They looked to the United States for providing a model of good practices that have proven remarkably robust, with considerable capacity for survival and growth. American higher education has been viewed as a system that has not only been able to withstand pressures, both internal and external, but also adapt to change without undermining its basic mission and structure. It has withstood numerous wars and recessions, significant changes in social attitudes, dramatic demographic shifts, and repeated attempts to curtail its power and influence. Throughout the twentieth century, American research universities have remained important centers not only of scientific and technological research but also of critical debates about key social, cultural and political debates.

It is these historical strengths that are widely acknowledged, and even admired, by systems around the world, which have sought to understand and emulate them. For example, in South Korea, a large a majority of its faculty has received their research training in the United States; Singapore has drawn heavily on American university administrative expertise to develop its universities; and China too have looked to the United States to develop an elite group of one hundred world-class universities. My own university --the University of Melbourne, established in mid nineteenth century along the lines of traditional British universities --has recently overhauled its teaching program and has decided to follow a more American model. In Europe, too recent reforms driven by Bologna have at least partly been influenced by the success of the American research universities.

In this paper, I want to do three things. First, I want to understand the nature of the historical strengths of the American system, and explain how it became established over the past two centuries. I suggest that the success of the American research university has largely been due to its adaptability and its hybrid form. It has borrowed heavily from a wide variety of philosophical traditions, reconciling the Enlightenment tradition with values associated with American pragmatism. This has led American universities to view themselves as both engines of economic growth and capital accumulation, as well as sites of critical reason, reflection and debate. Second, I want to explore how this political settlement about the role of public research universities in the United States is threatened by recent shifts towards marketization and corporatization; and whether this threat can be resisted. And finally, I want to explore the extent to which it is possible to export the historical strengths of American research universities, and, if they are, which of its characteristics are best borrowed to reform systems of higher education elsewhere.


Fazal Rizvi (Universitat de Melbourne)

Fazal RizviFazal Rizvi is professor in Global Studies in Education at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. After ten years as a Professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he directed its Global Studies in Education program, Fazal Rizvi returned in July 2010 to Australia to take up an appointment as a Professor at the University of Melbourne. He had previously held senior academic and administrative appointments at a number of universities in Australia, including as Pro Vice Chancellor (International) at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and as the founding Director of the Monash Centre for Research in International Education. From 1993 to 2000, Fazal edited the journal, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, and in 1996 was the President of the Australian Association for Research in Education. He has also served on a number of government bodies, including the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australia Foundation for Culture and the Humanities, and as an international panel member on the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE2008).

While Fazal’s disciplinary background is in Philosophy, much of his teaching and research has addressed issues in education policy. More recently, his research has focused on issues of identity and culture in transnational contexts; global mobility of students; and theories of globalization and the internationalization of education. His current projects include an examination of the ways in which Indian universities are negotiating pressures of globalization and the knowledge economy, as well as a more theoretical exploration of the cosmopolitan possibilities of education. He has written or edited over sixteen books, and over 100 journal articles and papers in edited volumes. His recent books include: Youth Moves: Identities and Education in a Global Era (2007); Globalization and the Study of Education (2009); and Globalizing Educational Policy (2010). Fazal has not only held senior administrative positions in universities but has also written extensively on higher education policy, and has, for the past four years, convened the annual World Universities Forum.

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