A place on the podium? What is university research for?

Simone Buitendijk
University of Leeds
6 min readNov 19, 2021


To fully realise the potential of the amazing world-changing work we do, we need to break out of the shackles of competition and rankings. And that goes for research in particular, which is being stifled by the current prevailing culture in which it can almost feel like an Olympic sport.

Landscape of Burgh-Haamstede, in the Netherlands, depicting a sandy beach with sea in the distance and shallow water in the foreground. There is a line of posts — wave breakers — driven into the sand.
Burgh-Haamstede, the Netherlands.

I am not the first person to ask what university research is for, and I certainly hope I am not the last. It is an important question and the answer is pivotal, not just for the people carrying out research, but for the entire global population.

Our planet and the people on it are under threat from many challenges, with climate change and the global pandemic perhaps being the most visible at the moment. In reality, many so-called Global Challenges, such as poverty, growing inequalities and refugee crises, are connected to climate change and population health issues. The most vulnerable suffer disproportionately, but the global threats leave no one untouched.

“It is difficult to imagine another group of networked institutions as well placed as universities to take the lead…”

We need a huge, highly collaborative effort to roll back some of the most catastrophic effects of these problems – for all life on our planet. This will involve transforming the culture around research.

It is difficult to imagine another group of networked institutions as well placed as universities to take the lead on all of this. They have two powerful, inextricably-linked core missions. First, to carry out cutting edge research to find new solutions to extremely complicated and intertwined issues, alongside fundamental research to lay the foundations for tackling the Global Challenges of tomorrow. And second, to train the next generation of global citizens. Both missions feed off and support each other. Yet universities are not being as effective as they should be. That needs to change, urgently.

Encouragingly, a lot of the hurdles to being effective and agile enough to collectively tackle and solve the big issues of our time are internal, and of our own making. I say encouragingly, because this makes me hugely optimistic about our capacity for the transformation that is so urgently needed. What we have done we can also undo, although it will take a lot of insight, strategic thinking and resolve.

So what is the problem? During the last few decades, universities worldwide seem to have drifted into a highly competitive mode. A blog does not give me enough space to speculate about the “why”, although I have some thoughts. Whatever the cause though, the undeniable fact is that we are constantly eyeing each other for that better place in the global university rankings, and for the rewards that seem to follow.

The problem with rankings is (at least) twofold: they introduce a sense of breathlessness among university leaders and governors, since you can never feel you are good enough. Even when you are at the top, it appears you have to work ever harder to keep out-competing and avoid the dreaded drop. The second big issue is that the sense of competition with each other inevitably seeps into our internal reward and recognition systems. That is making university communities increasingly miserable and means those of us in higher education leadership do not always seem to be encouraging the behaviours and values we profess to foster.

“Competing for research income, and publishing in prestigious journals as a proxy for quality, become the primary tactical and strategic aims.”

A university’s position in the international rankings in particular is still primarily determined by its research production, both in quantity and in quality. If the place in the rankings is all-important, competing for (ever decreasing amounts of) research income, and publishing in prestigious journals as a proxy for quality, become the primary tactical and strategic aims. The internal consequences of that focus are myriad, but I would pick out three.

First, if we are not careful we will have a tendency to primarily recognise and celebrate the “heavy hitter”, individual academics who have been at it for a while and have a big reputation. In time this will undermine our pipeline of talented early career researchers and other research staff who make fundamental team contributions.

Second, research-heavy rankings inevitably favour good research over good teaching (since the latter has little impact on these global rankings), rather than recognising the symbiotic potential of both. As a result, teaching becomes more important as a source of income than as a respected core activity, and teaching-focused staff may be deemed lesser than research-focused staff. For us to encourage the type of group work where everybody – including younger academics and support staff, and colleagues from underrepresented groups – feel equally valued, we must avoid consciously or subconsciously rewarding a particular set of (individual) behaviours and outcomes.

Third, a focus on rankings will constrain the way we undertake our research. We will be hesitant to carry out multi- and transdisciplinary research, and research in social sciences and humanities, because the results are often published in a way that makes them less highly ranked, despite the fact they are essential to addressing the Global Challenges. Nor will we decolonise our research and our curricula enough, because that does not help us in the rankings. As a result of all of this, we will not teach our students enough of what really matters in the world that they will enter into as graduates.

There are quite a few external effects as well. An important one is that universities in the Global North will, on average, have a sizeable advantage over those in the Global South in securing funding and getting published, because of their pre-existing reputations. That means that important insights from scholars in countries that experience the Global Challenges more directly and dramatically will not be shared enough, which will in turn reduce the actual impact of research. And it means that we will not publish enough in collaboration between the Global North and the Global South.

But – returning to the internal – perhaps the most pernicious effect of all is that we teach our communities that whatever they do, it is never enough. No matter how hard they all work, there is always more that we need to do to keep up with our competitors. Academic work becomes an Olympic sport, instead of a noble profession with inherent goals.

“The world needs us too much for us to be so focused on ourselves.”

The solutions are clear. First and foremost, we need to stop competing and we need to move away from the rankings. The world needs us too much for us to be so focused on ourselves. And that means truly treating research and education as equal and complementary. We need to create highly values-led, collaborative academic communities which feel a sense of shared purpose around research, teaching and societal impact. Every university will have a different emphasis, but the reason for being needs to be clear to all. We should be communities where all colleagues feel rewarded and recognised, whether they are professional services and support staff, or academics, be that researchers or teachers.

Also, we should be more generous with our power and influence both towards our local communities, and towards colleague universities who struggle more. We need to be empathic, both internally and externally, and understand the needs of others who have less than we do. And perhaps we can be inspired and encouraged by the fact that the more empathic we are, the happier and more fulfilled we will ultimately be ourselves.

And if we do all of this, we won’t need to ask questions such as what is research – or education, for that matter – for? It will be self-evident in the supportive, collaborative and rewarding cultures we inhabit and foster that in turn support the enormous impact we are having in creating a fairer future for all.



Simone Buitendijk
University of Leeds

Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leeds.