In his final engagement before resigning as finance minister last year, Emmanuel Macron, now the president of France, visited one of the country’s most prestigious higher education institutions.
“He spoke to each and every start-up based at our business incubator centre, discussed their projects, and they all took selfies with him,” Jacques Biot, the president of École Polytechnique, who hosted Mr Macron’s visit to the Paris grande école in August 2016, told Times Higher Education.
And while Mr Biot declared himself “very happy” that the 39-year-old former investment banker had won the presidential run-off against far-Right candidate Marine Le Pen on 7 May, entrepreneurs at his institution will be even more thrilled.
With Mr Macron in the Élysée Palace, “some start-ups will raise funds for their businesses much more easily” thanks to their Macron selfies, joked Mr Biot, who is himself a successful entrepreneur and investor in health sciences who took the reins of his alma mater in July 2013.
Mr Macron’s vocal support for science – which has included a video message to US scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in February urging them to relocate to France – would seem to augur well for École Polytechnique, a highly research-intensive institution, where about 30 per cent of graduates later take a PhD.
Mr Biot, who in the 1980s served as an adviser to Laurent Fabius, the Socialist prime minister, thought that Mr Macron had spoken “much more about excellence than size” – a reference to continuing reforms to bring together many of France’s often tiny higher education institutions into clusters with a critical mass that will allow them to crack the upper echelons of global university rankings inhabited by the likes of Harvard, Stanford and Oxford universities.
The largest of these “mega-universities” is Paris-Saclay, a campus south of the French capital where École Polytechnique has been based since the 1970s. Adjacent to École Polytechnique,some 60,000 students and 11,000 academic staff at 19 institutions will be based on the campus, with the project, awarded the equivalent of £6 billion in initial funding, likely to produce about 15 per cent of France’s research each year.
Mr Macron’s emphasis on promoting excellence, rather than stressing the need for ever-larger universities, will help École Polytechnique (which has just 3,000 students) to “stay on the verge of Saclay”, said Mr Biot, and not sacrifice its august history. “Polytechniciens” attend their graduation ceremony in Napoleonic-style military uniforms, a nod to the institution’s origins as a military academy founded at the end of 18th century to train engineers.
While École Polytechnique remains at the heart of the Saclay project, it has been made clear to the institution that it "would not lose our name, brand or our strategic agility,” Mr Biot said on a visit to London to launch an €80 million (£67 million) fundraising campaign.
While France’s grandes écoles have been criticised for their arcane admissions procedures – applicants must complete a two-year preparatory course after high school before taking a national exam – Mr Biot said that his institution’s creation of different admission routes and, from this autumn, several new English-only programmes showed that it was far more progressive than often perceived.
“About 30 per cent of students are international on our French language courses, of whom 15 per cent do not speak French fluently when they come here,” he explained.
“About 40 per cent of students on our [English language courses] do not speak French when they arrive, but they will learn when they join our programme,” he said, emphasising the flexibility that has allowed the institution to recruit highly able students from across the world, including one of its first students from the UK.
In many respects, École Polytechnique is “not a grande école any more”, argued Mr Biot, because it had “stepped away” from primarily domestic recruitment into a worldwide pursuit of talent.
“The grande école model is limiting when it can recruit only from a closed reservoir of certain students – it does not have the richness if you cannot tap into a worldwide reservoir of students,” he said, adding that his institution’s annual tuition fees of €12,000 (£10,300) also set it apart from its French educational counterparts, which often charge only minimal fees.
Many of its most outstanding recent students and alumni had come from francophone countries in West Africa, among them Credit Suisse chief executive Tidjane Thiam, who is from Ivory Coast, Mr Biot said. Applications were now arriving from South Africa and countries in East Africa, as well as Russia and Switzerland, he added.
École Polytechnique’s ambitions to attract the very best scientific minds – 40 per cent of its faculty are international – will chime with Mr Macron’s desire to win the global race for scientific talent, so the institution can probably expect a few more selfies on campus with the young French president over the next five years.