Sorbonne année

Howard Davies on league tables and rebranding exercises

March 29, 2012

Teaching in France is something of a culture shock after the London School of Economics. It’s not that the students are that different: the Sciences Po admissions department delivers a liquorice allsorts mixture that would be quite at home on the Aldwych, and quite a few of them are on double-degree programmes with the LSE, Columbia University or elsewhere.

The national composition is a little different: few Singaporeans, Malaysians or Hong Kong Chinese, more Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans. But my class of 85 boasts 32 nationalities, all eager (or at least pretending to be eager) to learn about the political economy of central banking. It’s a sexy topic these days. By first bringing the global financial system to its knees with imprudently loose monetary policy, then rescuing it with cheap liquidity a gogo, central banks have made themselves interesting, even to students not planning a career on Threadneedle Street or in the Banque de France.

No, the culture shock is elsewhere, but no less serious. The most challenging issue is that the default position of Sciences Po coffee machines delivers a treacly solution in which a little plastic stick can stand to attention: that takes some getting used to. Persuading them not to dispense half the annual output of Tate & Lyle with each espresso is a challenge.

And time zones are a problem. When I set a midnight deadline for the delivery of a mid-term essay, do I mean Greenwich Mean Time or Central European Time? That issue generated heated email traffic between the class and my teaching assistant.

Also, the mood music surrounding French higher education is rather different. In England it is downbeat as teaching grants are sharply cut and fees rise; in France, the major preoccupation is with how to spend the proceeds of “le grand emprunt” (“The great borrowing”, one might call it, or perhaps “The Big Issue”). The Sarkozy government decided to raise a large slug of money in 2010 to invest in a number of centres (or laboratories) of excellence around the Hexagon so as to create French institutions able to punch their weight in international competition. The state wants to create up to 10 campuses “à vocation mondiale”.

How has this become a national priority for a fiscally challenged country whose debt has already been downgraded? The principal answer is that the French have acquired a bad case of league tableitis - a virulent disease with no known cure that they picked up in Shanghai. French politicians simply cannot bear the fact that none of their institutions figures in the top 30 of the Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities. The top French institution last year was Paris 11, which appeared one notch below the University of Maryland, College Park (40th). It is a national disaster, even worse than losing at home to England in the RBS 6 Nations.

Those of us who have digested these league tables and looked hard at the criteria and the inputs tend to see them as sausages: the more you know what goes into the mix, the less keen you are to consume them. They are structurally biased towards English-language universities, that is clear. But I suppose it is easier to downplay them if you are near the top than the bottom, and explaining the subtleties to politicians is not an easy job. Indeed, if a government interprets a low ranking as a need to spend more money, why make the effort?

So the paraphernalia of international juries and committees has been put in place, bids have been invited and the government is preparing to dish out €7.7 billion (£6.4 billion) to the 10 winning entries. It’s a cross between University Challengeand El Gordo.

Five winners have been identified so far and Sciences Po is one. I was hoping that an early consequence would be an upgrade to Business Premier Class on the Eurostar for its London-based faculty, but it seems to have left that bit out of the published submission. Instead, Sciences Po will become part of an alliance, a mega-university of 120,000 students called Sorbonne Paris Cite. “Sorbonne” is the favoured brand. Two of the five winners will use it: one is called Sorbonne Universites, and one of the also-rans, which may rebid, was branded Hesam (Hautes etudes-Sorbonne-Arts et Metiers).

The French administration has evidently concluded that the name “Sorbonne” is the Chateau Latour or the Yves Saint Laurent of French higher education, so the more it is used, the better. Maybe there is a lesson here for the UK. How about “Cambridge East London”, or “Oxford in Central Lancashire”? University College London and King’s College London could be helpfully repositioned as subsidiaries of the LSE. Those are names bound to attract the attention of the data inputters in Shanghai.

The students in Paris so far seem unmoved and the faculty, too, as far as I can judge. But then it is fair to say that the benefits have yet to emerge. In recent years, Sciences Po has been expanding rapidly in size and deepening its global footprint under its charismatic and determined leader, Richard Descoings. He has also taken a grande ecole into areas that the others do not reach - sponsoring a lycee in a poor Parisian suburb and setting up undergraduate campuses in all four corners of the Hexagon: Reims, Le Havre, Menton, Dijon, Nancy and Poitiers. The school’s identity and status in France are not in question, and for those who look beyond league tables its worldwide reputation is rising, so there is no compelling need for a rebranding exercise. But I guess that when I ran the LSE, if I had been offered several billion pounds to change my name to Malcolm Grant, I would have given it serious consideration.

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