Student Advice

What is a Research University?

Ben Maples  · Apr 28th 2023  · 5 min

A research university is a type of higher education institution that strongly emphasises academic research as a core component of its mission.


Research universities are at the forefront of university education. These universities typically have a diverse range of academic departments and programs, with a significant number of faculty members engaged in scholarly research across various disciplines. In this context, research refers to the systematic investigation and exploration of new knowledge, ideas, and theories through rigorous inquiry, experimentation, and analysis.

That’s not to say that these universities prioritise research over education. The research activities of faculty members often inform their teaching and serve to enrich the educational experience of students, who may have opportunities to participate in research projects themselves.

University researcher

What is a research university?

A research university is a university that prioritises research alongside education. Research is of the utmost importance to these universities and will often award doctoral degrees as they specialise in knowledge transfer between generations.

These universities can be either public or private and may even be owned by larger companies or brands. Not all research universities are necessarily a part of the Russell Group Universities, even though it is a group created specifically for research universities. The UK currently has 84 research universities at the time of publishing, including the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford and University College London.

Why is research important to a research university?

There are several important reasons why universities prioritise research. Being able to offer unparalleled teaching is one. Receiving excellent grant funding is another.

Universities can often be at the heart of discovery. The University of Oxford, in particular, has several important scientific discoveries that can be ascribed to them and their status as a research university. The University of Manchester was also at the forefront of discovery, owing to their work on building the first working computer and the contraceptive pill.

What are the benefits of attending a research university?

Research universities are considered to be some of the best for teaching. The courses at research universities tend to differ compared to other universities, especially when it comes to undergraduate degrees, mainly due to their teaching methods. Undergraduate courses are often more academic than vocational, with a specific focus on both critical thinking and life skills.

Academic researchers

Distinguished professors

Research universities have a much easier time attracting exceptional teachers, tutors, lecturers and professors. As a result, the university can offer more specialised subjects, including STEM subjects and Law courses.

This means that experts in the field will likely teach you. These experts will enhance your learning experience and provide you with all of the tools you need to succeed in your degree and may even have an insight for finding work post-graduation or a work placement.

More research opportunities

Research universities, unsurprisingly, have a greater capacity for research opportunities and degrees. Qualifications such as the MRes degree are well-served at a research university as they have better facilities and teaching in place to help students.

Research programmes and initiatives are introduced more frequently. This gives students the chance to work in laboratories, build prototypes, and conduct far more in-depth research tasks.

The MRes is a qualification that research universities specialise in. Alongside this, there is also the MPhil, the MLitt and a doctorate in research, all of which provide excellent training ahead of a PhD or another postgraduate qualification.

State-of-the-art facilities

Research universities will have world-class facilities for students to use. As a result, research universities spend far more, ensuring that facilities, hardware and software are up-to-date and state-of-the-art.

Research and development is essential for all university courses taught at a research university. This will also mean that you are able to carry out your own in-depth university research with the latest equipment.

Under research

Individual attention

The high standards that come with a research university extend to teaching beyond who they can hire. Most research universities tend to favour more of a one-to-one approach to teaching and will usually have more hands-on teaching sessions for those who need them.

It is true that research universities tend to have larger classes. Despite this, research universities prioritise individual learning plans for all students, ensuring they get the attention and focus they deserve.

International reputation

Most research universities in the UK come with an international pedigree. An international reputation means greater funding, better attraction for faculty members and your degree comes with a different pedigree.

Research study

Is it better to attend a research university?

This will depend on you and the subject you are studying, as well as the level you are capable of learning at. University is a big step up for students after BTEC and A-Level, so moving into an intense course at a research university can often be a large step up.

The best thing to do is to assess your own needs. Attend a university open day and make sure you ask your tutors questions and see if what they have on offer is what you are looking for and if you can respond to it.

You need to make sure that when choosing your university all aspects suit you. Is the accommodation to your liking? Do the finances of the course and accommodation work for you? Do they have student finance options that will help you?

You also need to make sure that you are comfortable studying at these universities. Some of them can be a long way from home and it is up to you to decide if you are comfortable being a long way from home for an extended period of time.

Other universities may also offer other elements that are more attractive to you. This may be a different learning style, facilities that are more suited to your specific needs or may even specialise in the subject you are looking to study. Remember, just because it is a research university, does not instantly make it the best university for you.

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