Dream of French mega-university lives on as grandes écoles split

Despite failure to include several prestigious institutions in the project, the president of the University of Paris-Saclay says that it will still be a ‘globally world-class university’

November 21, 2017
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France’s “mega-university” will still go ahead despite the failure to convince several highly selective grandes écoles to join, according to the leader of the University of Paris-Saclay project.

Seven years ago, the French government announced that it wanted to pull together 19 institutions – which collectively account for 15 per cent of all French research output – on a 1,300-acre site on the southwestern edge of Paris in order to better coordinate their activities.

It set aside billions of euros for the project, including €2.5 billion (£2.2 billion) to extend the Paris Metro. However, at the end of last month Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president, ended years of deadlock and announced that there would be two “clusters” of institutions instead, rather than a unified single university as originally envisaged.

A group of grandes écoles, known as prestigious training grounds for the French elite, decided about three years ago that they were reluctant to join the mega-university, said Gilles Bloch, Paris-Saclay’s president, and now Mr Macron has decided that it would be easier to have two clusters instead of forcing them together.

“The political will was maybe not strong enough at some critical moments” to force the grandes écoles to sign up, he told Times Higher Education.

“These two entities will share the same territory but my institutions...will be a fully fledged university with a global brand,” Professor Bloch said. Paris-Saclay will boast 250 to 270 labs, while the other cluster of five grandes écoles will have 30 to 35, he said. The relative size of these two groups is “very, very different”, he said.

For Paris-Saclay, the ambition “is the same as before...we want to become a globally world-class university”, and attract “the best students in the world”.

“What we have lost [some of the grandes écoles] is not that huge,” Professor Bloch argued.

He said that he wished “good luck” to the grandes écoles that will not be part of the mega-university, but said that they had not wanted to join other institutions’ cultures. “Some of the grandes écoles that are working with us are simply not ready to have any significant transformation,” he said. More time was needed to demonstrate to them that “the international model of a comprehensive university is a good one”, he added.

Paris-Saclay now has a “road map” to create a new, overarching legal entity by 2020 and will also have a “unified research strategy”, he said. It already awards the degrees of all PhD students and 80 per cent of master’s students at its component institutions, and will start awarding a significant number of undergraduate degrees by 2020.

Four to five grandes écoles will still be part of Paris-Saclay, but will keep some autonomy in a “hybrid model” of “partially merged” budgets, he said. They will retain their own legal identities, continue to award their own degrees, still have a president and individually receive a stream of funding from the French state, Professor Bloch explained.

Part of the logic of the merger is to win a higher position in global university rankings. The tie-up should mean that by 2020 the new organisation is ranked between 16th and 19th position in the Academic Ranking of World Universities, known as the Shanghai ranking, he said.

Jacques Biot, president of École Polytechnique, one of the five grandes écoles that will now remain outside Paris-Saclay in an alliance currently known as NewUni, said that Mr Macron’s decision was part of a “new philosophy in France” to “leave more freedom to...economic and academic players”. The other members of NewUni are: ENSTA ParisTech, ENSAE, Télécom ParisTech and Télécom SudParis.

The new École Polytechnique-led cluster and Paris-Saclay will complement each other like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, he argued, with the former focusing more on applied research and industry links.

Professor Bloch countered: “Maybe they will succeed but, if you look at the figures...you are very, very far from MIT” in terms of size.

There would only be “extremely light” integration of the École Polytechnique-led cluster of institutions, Professor Biot said. “It’s not going to be a huge change.”

Despite the seven-year Paris-Saclay saga coming to a conclusion short of a full merger, big French university tie-ups were not necessarily over, he argued.

Paris’ historic Sorbonne University – broken into pieces after the 1968 student revolts – is being reborn under the merger of Pierre and Marie Curie University and Paris-Sorbonne University – Paris 4, for example.

“There have been some mergers in France that have worked very well,” Professor Biot said, adding that there was no “theological”, definitive answer as to whether mergers work or not.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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