A golden opportunity for team players in republic of letters

France moves away from grandes écoles model in bid to foster new elite. Jack Grove reports from Paris

November 3, 2011

Credit: Getty
Playing to an international audience: with the creation of a top-tier Sorbonne League, France hopes to consolidate and improve its strengths and rise in the rankings

When interviewing a potential minister, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's first question was always the same: "L'origine?"

The conservative leader, who was president of France from 1974 to 1981, expected all ministers to have studied at one of the grandes écoles attended by just 5 per cent of higher education students. And Giscard d'Estaing also checked whether he or she was part of the even more selective fraternity, the grands corps.

These top-tier graduates had passed automatically into a well-paid career in the civil service and, as part of France's unofficial aristocracy, expected promotion and success as a matter of course. Others assumed senior executive positions in business and banking.

Meanwhile, graduates from France's largely non-selective universities were left to battle it out in the job market.

Despite France's egalitarian principles, this two-level system - which concentrated substantial resources on a small, elite cadre of students destined to run the country - remained unchallenged for generations.

But a quiet revolution is now taking place in French higher education, and some observers predict that the changes will thin the ranks of institutions through university closures.

After France made a dismal showing in recent world university league tables (there are only five French institutions in the top 200 of the 2011-12 Times Higher Education World University Rankings compared with 12 Dutch institutions), government ministers are leading a move away from the grandes écoles model in a bid to compete on the international stage for the best students and staff.

Universities, individual faculties, specialist schools, grandes écoles and France's independent research associations - such as the National Centre for Scientific Research - are working together for the first time since 1970, when universities were split up in the wake of the May 1968 unrest.

Although these institutions will be billed as "comprehensive universities", the constituent elements will maintain their radically different admissions systems - with no selection at entrance level in the standard universities.

The aim of the shift to comprehensive universities is to allow France to compete on the same terms as other nations, where the idea of the research university is well established. The plan is that the new institutions will score better in rankings, create dynamic research clusters and reduce expenditure on administration.

There will also be financial rewards on offer for reform-minded institutions. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, is offering six or seven endowments of €1 billion (£864 million) to new comprehensive universities, with the aim of creating a French "Ivy League" of top institutions.

A number of institutions have already decided to unite. And with earlier reforms having granted France's universities more autonomy, others could follow.

Think bigger, says minister

"There are too many small universities," says Laurent Wauquiez, who became the country's youngest Cabinet minister, aged 36, when he was appointed to the higher education and research post in June.

"We had 85 universities and 225 grandes écoles - it's a bit too much.

"We have merged different universities and put all their strengths together. We had good schools, but we now have the capacity to compete with the best universities in the world.

"We've put a lot of money on the table, too, so the reforms will be successful."

Under the changes, Paris' 17 universities, 20 grandes écoles, four research centres and numerous business schools, teaching hospitals and specialist colleges would arrange themselves into eight comprehensive universities for the city's 600,000 students.

Of these clusters, Paris Sciences et Lettres (integrating 13 institutions) has already been selected for one of Sarkozy's endowments, alongside university clusters in Bordeaux and Strasbourg.

Massive investment in select universities is a radical step for the French system, observes Sebastian Stride, a Barcelona-based consultant who advised Paris Sciences et Lettres on its funding bid.

In France, all universities that are not grandes écoles are considered equal by students and the public in general, he says. "For them there is no difference between obtaining a degree from Paris 1 (University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne) or Toulon, and people generally attend their local university. But the Sorbonne universities (the four institutions located in part of the historic Sorbonne building) are obviously viewed more highly internationally.

"By trying to create an 'Ivy League' - or Sorbonne League - you are creating a differentiation in quality, and it ceases to be a local market."

The new Russell Group-style centres of excellence beyond the grandes écoles will usher in student choice, Stride adds, even though tuition will remain free.

"I think some universities will close, some will specialise and some will become community colleges," he predicts.

"But you will also create a mechanism to develop a leading research university.

"For instance, the École Normale Supérieure has educated 10 Fields Medal winners - the education is brilliant, and it attracts the brightest and best. But we need to put these people in contact with applied maths and those doing start-up companies," Stride says.

The dearth of innovative businesses developing out of France's higher education sector is another reason the government is trying to foster closer links between research institutes, universities and grandes écoles.

With the top scientists and engineers bound for the grandes ecoles and a lifetime in the civil service, critics say France is missing out on a generation of entrepreneurs.

Jean-René Fourtou, president of the University of Bordeaux Foundation and former chief executive of global entertainment group Vivendi, says the rigid rote learning at these elite institutions is also a problem.

"When people go there, they learn how to work a lot, but lose their imagination," says Fourtou, a graduate of the prestigious École Polytechnique.

"They are told they are the best when they are 17 - and this is a huge mistake. People from universities have more experience of life and more imagination.

"In my 17 years as a CEO, no programme in a grande école has produced (usable) research. Universities are much better.

"Small teams doing fundamental research - very focused work - at universities are much better than even the big teams at commercial firms.

"Universities have more potential than grandes écoles. The guys from business have discovered that people from universities can be entrepreneurs, too."

Bringing businessmen such as Fourtou into the university fold is part of a strategy intended to capitalise on scientific innovations taking place on campuses across France.

Almost €22 billion from the French government's €35 billion Investing in the Future programme will go to higher education, with the ideas most deserving of support being determined by independent panels of international experts rather than by ministers.

Fostering a spirit of independence from the state appears to be the impetus behind Sarkozy's reforms, which have cross-party support and are likely to be carried out even if he is not returned to office next year.

Pick your own paint

The moves build on initiatives begun in 2009 by Valerie Pecresse, then higher education minister, to give more autonomy to vice-chancellors. Universities had previously been controlled by the education ministry.

"When universities wanted to create a new course, they had to come to Paris and ask the ministry," Wauquiez says.

"If they wanted to put white paint on the walls, they had to have discussions here. These changes are a revolution in mentality in a country where everything is centralised."

Vice-chancellors are now drawing up strategic plans to attract top international students and staff.

To gain more self-determination, they are also calling on alumni to donate to their alma mater.

"Our universities rely too much on state expenditure," says Edouard Husson, vice-chancellor of the universities of Paris.

"In the early part of the 20th century, it was quite normal for some people with money to give to universities. Families such as the Carnegies and the Rockefellers all gave money to the Sorbonne. We need to come back to this habit. It will be a long march to make sure this mentality is changed."

Louis Vogel, president of Panthéon-Assas Paris II University and head of the Conference of University Presidents, which represents vice-chancellors, is another advocate for change.

"We are bringing back the model of a university," says the Yale-educated lawyer.

"If you look at the rankings we are very bad, although this does not reflect reality.

"But if you do not fight the competition with the same league ranking (systems) and if you do not put resources where others put theirs, you will suffer."


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