British institute puts the accent on its French connections

University of London's Parisian base offers full immersion in Gallic culture. Matthew Reisz writes

July 5, 2012

"My field of research is outside the door," says Andrew Hussey. "That changes the way you think and write about France."

It sounds like an obvious idea. If you're going to research or study a foreign language and culture, what better place to do so than on the ground in the country itself? Yet in the whole of British higher education, it is only the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP) - where Professor Hussey, a leading authority on French history and society, has been dean since 2007 - that has taken on the complex challenges involved in such a strategy.

The location is almost too good to be true. The institute shares an office with the British Council and is sandwiched between the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs on the Quai d'Orsay and Napoleon's grandiose tomb at Les Invalides. Hussey's window has a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower. It would be hard to imagine a better spot to reflect on French grandeur, the weight of its history, its relations with Britain, Europe and the world.

ULIP forms part of a consortium with Queen Mary, University of London and Royal Holloway, University of London. Its current core offering is a BA in French studies taught to around 150 undergraduates, the vast majority of them British.

It is delivered almost entirely in French by a team of five full-time British researchers, of which Hussey is "player-manager", as well as native French speakers for most of the language classes.

There is also a one-year MA in Paris studies delivered in English to around 20 students by experts from across the consortium, many of them now also involved in a forthcoming BBC Four documentary, The Treasures of the Louvre.

Despite "the challenge of teaching French from within", Hussey sees a number of advantages - for staff and students alike - when "the filter between France and the UK is taken away". The most obvious is the accelerated language learning that results when all the teaching and much of everyday life is conducted in French.

Students acquire experience of living abroad and operating between cultures, which tends to promote personal development and the intercultural skills many employers claim to be seeking.

But it also means that any courses on French culture become far more immediate and urgent. "If we study the impact of Islam in the banlieues [poor suburbs]," explains Hussey, "we'll be looking at the places where some of the students are living."

Something similar applies to academics. For Anna-Louise Milne, ULIP's director of graduate studies and research, the institute's setting means that it can "offer really situated engagement with the culture, drawing on lived experience alongside research".

Lecturer Catriona MacLeod, for example, is completing a PhD on French bandes dessinées (graphic novels). This is a topic that seldom came up in the pub while she was at the University of Glasgow. In Paris, even the most casual conversation will soon lead to recommendations about books she should read.

Another lecturer, Isabel Hollis, works on postcolonial studies and has written about the Islamic headscarf and other debates around immigration. Since these are clearly of far more than academic interest in France, everybody she meets is keen to offer their views (and sometimes to ask whether someone with a British accent can ever really hope to understand the subject).

Hussey himself operates on the borders between French and British life. His 2006 book, Paris: The Secret History, "aims to tell the story of [the city] from the point of view of 'the dangerous classes'", such as "insurrectionists, vagabonds, immigrants, sexual outsiders, criminals". He presented a "gastronomic tour" of France on a Plate for BBC Four, and another - The North on a Plate - devoted to the tripe, pies and thick stews he grew up with in Liverpool.

As a convenient resident Brit he is often called upon by French television to talk about football, but he also writes about France "from the inside" for the British media. For his ongoing research into Islamic radicalisation, he has even been granted the rare privilege, for an English academic, of being allowed to carry out interviews in French prisons.

Cultural diffusion

Although it is currently operating on a fairly small scale, Hussey believes that ULIP "has yet to achieve critical mass or make full use of the building. The location makes us a good place to study fields such as international relations, cinema, art history or creative writing." Most of the institute's major forthcoming projects consciously build on its position on the frontier between cultures.

September will mark the official launch of a biannual journal under Hussey's editorship, Francosphères, where he plans to explore "the edges of French spheres of influence, geographically, culturally and linguistically. French culture is in fragments, but we think the fragments are interesting."

The institute will be taking on new staff to launch a Centre for the Study of France and North Africa in October, in partnership with the British Council and Embassy and the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (commonly known as "Sciences Po" and roughly equivalent to the London School of Economics).

A one-year English-language LLM (master of laws), developed with Queen Mary, will start in January. Hussey hopes to add value by "delivering the course in an international environment with international practitioners".

His longer-term plans "to make ULIP more than just a French department" include a joint-honours BA in French and Spanish - the most popular modern-language degree in the UK - taught between Paris and Madrid.

Milne, meanwhile, wants ULIP to develop its research identity and is currently "building a pool of expertise on migrant and expatriate writing in Paris for a [virtual] centre funded by the British Academy". In time, she hopes, "the best French PhD students will feel that our seminars are a necessary port of call, which will also help them take a step towards the Anglo-Saxon academy, where many will find the resources and opportunities for pursuing future careers".

Comme des garçons

Single-honours French degrees are in significant decline within the UK, and languages more generally attract a disproportionate number of applicants from independent schools as well as far more women than men.

Although these phenomena result from factors and attitudes beyond ULIP's control, Milne argues that they have been more successful than many other institutions in addressing them.

"We want to attract undergraduates passionate about France and living abroad, who are looking for a life-transforming experience," she says, "rather than those studying the subject as a default option." This has apparently led to "exceptionally high recruitment of boys", at around 40 per cent, which makes it "nothing like as warped as other French departments". Furthermore, while ULIP continues "to maintain standards in terms of A-level results", the total immersion in French language and life that it offers gives admissions tutors a certain flexibility to take "the untrained but high-potential applicants".

Although studying in Paris obviously brings extra travel costs for students who want to go home during vacations, Milne adds, "we can help place them as au pairs and English speakers can find many opportunities for casual work, which are probably better paid than in many British cities".

At a time of widespread concern from business and government about the levels of linguistic ability and international awareness acquired by students at British universities, ULIP may well offer a model worth exploring further.

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