From where I sit - Grandes ecoles a class apart?

September 25, 2008

What to do when your higher education system receives poor ratings in the two international league tables of note, the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings and that of Shanghai Jiao Tong? Simple: you invent your own.

Last year, for the first time, Paris's Ecole des Mines produced the Classement International Professionnel des Etablissements d'Enseignement Superieur. It has just released its second ranking, with interesting results. Tokyo University is first, in front of Harvard University. The University of Oxford is eighth and the University of Cambridge is equal 35, after the universities of Wyoming in the US and Bocconi in Milan.

Unlike the mainstream rankings, which take into account quality factors such as employer attitudes to recent graduates, peer attitudes, student-staff ratios, publications and journal citations, the Ecole des Mines ranks institutions according to just one criterion: at which institution the chief executive officers (CEOs) of the Fortune 500 companies studied.

And what do you know? This analysis produces four French institutions in the top 15.

The four top-ranked French institutions are well-known Paris-based grandes ecoles: HEC (Hautes Etudes Commerciales), ENA (Ecole Nationale de l'Administration), Sciences Po Paris, and the Ecole Polytechnique.

The "who studied where" test does seem an odd way of assessing the value of institutions. Most CEOs would have completed their higher education between ten and 30 years before landing the top job in their organisation. Similarly, the system overlooks the fact that in many sectors, especially business, what matters is what you have done, and how well you have done it - not where or what you studied when you were 23.

But this is not always the case in France. A recent study by Anna Stellinger and Raphael Wintrebert at the Fondation pour l'Innovation Politique looked at the attitudes and aspirations of young Europeans, and revealed that French youth is profoundly pessimistic. In part, this was ascribed to a view prominent among young people that education stratified society and that their future would be shaped definitively and irrevocably by their education choices.

Responses to the Mines rankings suggest that this belief may well be justified. Many of those responding to the publication have complained that the rankings reveal less about the quality of education and more about the employment practices of big business: grande ecole graduates tend to employ grande ecole graduates. This accords with a common joke made about these venerated institutions - that the most useful thing you will acquire during your studies there is a contacts book listing all former graduates.

This is, of course, unfair. The grandes ecoles do deserve better recognition in international rankings. There is no doubt that they suffer from the familiar separation of teaching and research functions in French higher education. The authors of the Mines rankings argued their "who studied where" test should be adopted by Times Higher Education-QS and Shanghai Jiao Tong as part of their suite of criteria.

Given the cultural differences in employment practices, this seems unwise. Perhaps, as a compromise, the human resources directors of the Fortune 500 should be asked to give their opinion on the qualities of graduates seeking employment. But then, why stop at the Fortune 500?

The 2008 Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings are published on 9 October.

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