May 18, 2024

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An Overlooked Ideal: Humboldt’s Vision and Our Missing Research

Ever since the inception of research universities in Malaysia in 2005, I have had countless opportunities to engage with academic faculty members in capacity-building training sessions, particularly when creating awareness about why they do research.

When queried about the reasons they engage in studies, those surveyed provided a plethora of responses. These responses spanned the spectrum from jaded senior researchers who cited promotion requirements or atypical Key Performance Indicators (KPI) that fueled the “Publish or Perish” dogma to eager young early career researchers who stated, “We contribute knowledge.” Additionally, those who have advanced in their careers at consultancies cited the offering of innovations to industry as their justification.

What struck me during these interactions was that many academic staff members do not fully grasp the historical and philosophical underpinnings of why research is conducted in universities. When working for their institutions, they frequently view it as a given and an essential component of their job description. It appears that Malaysian universities aspire to emulate top-ranking research universities worldwide but may not fully comprehend the Humboldtian philosophy that gave rise to these prestigious institutions.

The Humboldtian philosophy, named after the Prussian philosopher and diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt, emphasises the unity of research and teaching, academic freedom, and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. This approach has been instrumental in shaping the modern research university and has influenced the development of higher education systems around the world, including those in the United States and Europe.

However, since Malaysia elevated its institutions to embrace research, particularly after the establishment of the five Research Universities (RU), there seems to have been limited effort to explain the fundamental reasons behind conducting research within a university setting. This lack of understanding may hinder the ability of academic staff to fully engage in and benefit from the research process, as well as to contribute meaningfully to the advancement of knowledge in their respective fields.

In this essay, I attempt to elucidate the “Why” of research in universities, with the aim of helping academic staff in Malaysia better understand its significance and drive forward the necessary changes. By gaining a deeper appreciation for the purpose and value of research, they can more effectively advocate for the proper services and support from their institutions, ultimately enabling them to excel in the pursuit of the Second Mission – the advancement of knowledge through research and innovation.

Where did we begin? The Prussian philosopher and statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt played a pivotal role in shaping the modern university system. His concept, “Einheit von Lehre und Forschung,” which translates to “unity of teaching and research,” became a cornerstone principle for research universities.

Humboldt’s idea laid the groundwork for research universities. Humboldt envisioned universities as places where research and teaching were not separate activities but rather intertwined. He believed that professors should be actively involved in research and that their ongoing scholarly endeavours should inform their teaching. This fostered a dynamic learning environment where students were exposed to the latest knowledge and discoveries.

Einheit von Lehre und Forschung” placed a strong emphasis on scholarly inquiry and the pursuit of new knowledge. This shift from a focus on simply transmitting established knowledge to one that encouraged critical thinking and independent research became a hallmark of research universities. Humboldt championed the idea of academic freedom, where professors had the autonomy to choose their research topics and teaching methods. This fostered a climate of intellectual exploration and innovation, crucial for research universities to thrive.

The influence of Humboldt’s concept can be seen in the development of the modern research university model, which emerged in the 19th century. These universities prioritised original research alongside teaching, creating a symbiotic relationship where research informs teaching and student engagement with research projects fuels further discoveries. For instance, a professor’s cutting-edge research on renewable energy technologies could be incorporated into their course materials, exposing students to the latest advancements in the field. In turn, students working on research projects related to renewable energy might uncover new insights or innovations that contribute to the professor’s ongoing research. This reciprocal relationship between research and teaching lies at the heart of modern research universities.

Humboldt’s ideas have had a lasting impact on higher education, shaping the development of research universities worldwide. However, the implementation and adaptation of these principles have varied across different countries and institutions. In the case of Malaysian universities, the adoption of the research university model has been relatively recent, and the challenges and opportunities associated with this transition warrant further examination.

Humboldt’s ideas have had a lasting impact on higher education, shaping the development of research universities worldwide. However, the implementation and adaptation of these principles have varied across different countries and institutions. In the case of Malaysian universities, the adoption of the research university model has been relatively recent, and the challenges and opportunities associated with this transition warrant further examination. One crucial aspect of Humboldt’s vision that Malaysian universities should embrace is the importance of research in teaching. Why is research in teaching important? In research universities, research must be seen as a means to teach. Asking a student to study, for example, factors affecting urban biodiversity and asking the student to present it is far better than teaching them some content from a slide.

This approach aligns with key aspects of the Humboldt model of education, particularly the concept of “Einheit von Lehre und Forschung” (unity of teaching and research). Humboldt emphasised student engagement with the process of knowledge creation. In the example above, students actively research factors affecting urban biodiversity rather than passively receiving information. This fosters deeper understanding and critical thinking skills.

Just as research universities encourage professors to be active scholars, research as a teaching approach encourages students to ask questions and delve deeper into a topic. Professors who are engaged in research can serve as powerful role models for their students, demonstrating the value of inquiry and the excitement of discovery. By incorporating their own research into their teaching, professors can provide students with real-world examples and insights that bring the subject matter to life. There are several reasons why learning by doing research can be superior to conventional learning methods, especially when implemented effectively:

  • Deeper Understanding: Research requires students to actively engage with a topic, analyse information, and form their own conclusions. This goes beyond passive memorising facts and leads to a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
  • Critical Thinking Skills: The research process encourages students to ask questions, evaluate sources, and identify bias. This hones critical thinking skills, which are essential not just in academia but also in navigating the information overload of the modern world.
  • Improved Problem-Solving: Research often involves tackling complex problems. Students learn to break down problems into smaller parts, gather relevant information, and develop solutions. This fosters valuable problem-solving skills applicable to various aspects of life.
  • Increased Motivation and Engagement: Students are naturally more curious and engaged when they have a stake in their learning. Research allows them to explore topics that interest them and discover knowledge for themselves, boosting motivation and fostering a love of learning.
  • Development of Research Skills: Learning by doing research equips students with the skills to conduct future research projects. They learn how to find reliable sources, analyse data, and present their findings effectively—all valuable skills in a world fuelled by information.

However, implementing research-based learning is not without its challenges. It requires adequate resources, such as access to research materials and databases, as well as faculty who are trained in research methods and can effectively guide students through the research process. Additionally, students may need support in developing the necessary skills and confidence to engage in independent research.

So, what happened in Malaysia? Despite the impetus pushed by the Five RUs, the increased research output, and the rise in SCOPUS and Web of Science (WoS) publications, the integration of teaching and research that Humboldt envisioned appears to be lacking.

When I queried academic personnel about their research activities, they seemed to be too focused on research output (RO), such as publications, citations, and intellectual property. This focus on RO has led to a concerning trend where academics neglect their primary responsibility: teaching and engaging with their students. This imbalance suggests that the pursuit of research prestige may be overshadowing the fundamental purpose of universities as institutions of learning.

The lack of integration between research and teaching can have serious consequences for the quality of education. When academics are preoccupied with their research output, they may be less inclined to incorporate their research findings into their teaching materials or engage students in research-based learning activities. This deprives students of the opportunity to develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and research skills that are essential for their future careers.

Furthermore, when discussing research input (RI), academics often mentioned the difficulties in obtaining research funds and the exhilaration of becoming a Principal Investigator (PI) once they secured funding. However, during these conversations, they frequently forgot about their students, who are meant to be the primary beneficiaries of their research activities. The raison d’être of universities is to educate and nurture the next generation of thinkers, innovators, and leaders. By neglecting their teaching responsibilities in favour of research output, academics are failing to fulfil this fundamental purpose.

Another indicator of the disconnect between research and teaching is the limited university-industry collaboration in Malaysia. Despite the availability of funds, such as the RM6.6 billion Business Expenditure on Research and Development (BERD) prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Double Tax Deduction (DTD) incentive for research, I believe that Malaysian universities have struggled to fully capitalise on these opportunities. This suggests that Malaysian universities may not be effectively leveraging their research capabilities to drive innovation and economic growth.

It appears that Malaysian universities aspire to emulate prestigious institutions of higher education, such as Stanford, but lack an understanding of the Humboldtian philosophy that gave rise to Stanford. The issue is not just about emulating the success of top research universities like Stanford, but about understanding and embracing the underlying philosophy and values that have shaped their development over time.

The Humboldtian model is not just a set of practices or metrics but a fundamental approach to education and research that emphasises the unity of teaching and research, academic freedom, interdisciplinarity, and the cultivation of individual character and creativity. These values are deeply ingrained in the culture and history of universities like Stanford and have been nurtured over decades through sustained investment and commitment.

In contrast, it seems that many universities in Malaysia and other developing countries have sought to adopt the outward trappings of the Humboldtian model, such as the emphasis on research output and global rankings, without necessarily engaging with its underlying philosophy or creating the conditions necessary for its success. This has led to a kind of superficial imitation that may yield some short-term gains in terms of rankings or recognition but does not necessarily contribute to the long-term development of a vibrant and sustainable research culture.

Despite the challenges, there are some positive developments in Malaysian universities that show improvements in integrating research and teaching. Many universities have introduced initiatives such as “Research-Led Teaching” and “Action-Research,” which put Humboldt’s concept at the forefront. These approaches emphasise the importance of incorporating research findings into teaching materials and engaging students in research-based learning activities.

One notable example is the elevation of undergraduate research, which is now being highlighted in final-year seminars and published to share the knowledge gained. This initiative not only provides students with valuable research experience but also helps to improve the quality of their work. By working closely with academics who are well-versed in research, principles, students learn to conduct rigorous studies, analyse data critically, and present their findings effectively. This prepares them to withstand scrutiny and confidently publish their research, which is a crucial skill for their future careers.

Moreover, the incorporation of research into undergraduate education has led to a shift in the mindset of both academics and students. Academics are becoming more aware of the importance of integrating their research into their teaching, and students are becoming more engaged and motivated to learn when they have the opportunity to participate in research projects. This creates a virtuous cycle where research informs teaching, and teaching inspires further research.

However, while these developments are encouraging, there is still much work to be done to fully realise Humboldt’s vision in Malaysian universities. The initiatives mentioned above are not yet widespread, and many academics still struggle to balance their research and teaching responsibilities effectively. To truly transform the higher education landscape in Malaysia, a more systemic and sustained effort is needed to support and incentivize the integration of research and teaching.

This could involve providing more resources and training for academics to help them incorporate research into their teaching, as well as recognising and rewarding those who successfully do so. It could also involve creating more opportunities for students to engage in research at all levels of their education, from first-year coursework to final-year projects.

To truly emulate the success of prestigious universities, Malaysian universities would need to go beyond simply chasing rankings or publishing more papers and instead focus on creating an environment that values and supports genuine research and innovation. This would require a significant shift in mindset and culture, as well as a willingness to invest in the foundational elements of research excellence, such as:

  • Nurturing academic freedom and creativity
  • Fostering interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange
  • Providing adequate research infrastructure and support
  • Emphasising the importance of graduate education and mentorship
  • Building strong partnerships with industry and the community
  • Cultivating a culture of curiosity, risk-taking, and impact

Ultimately, the key is to embrace the spirit of the Humboldt model rather than just its outward forms. This means creating a culture of research and innovation that is driven by a genuine love of knowledge and a commitment to making a positive impact on society. It means valuing the contributions of individual scholars and researchers, while also fostering collaboration and exchange across disciplinary boundaries. And it means creating an environment that supports and rewards excellence in all its forms, from groundbreaking discoveries to innovative teaching and community engagement.

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