MORE THAN 2,000 academics and policy-makers from all corners of Europe will gather in the Sorbonne's marbled halls on Sunday to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Paris University, and to lay the foundations of a university for Europe in the next century.
Three European higher education ministers - Baroness Blackstone from Britain, Jurgen Ruttgers of Germany, and Luigi Berlinguer from Italy - will be designated Docteur Honoris Causa during the ceremony. The award was created in 1918 to honour foreigners who have given distinguished service to France in the sciences, literature, arts or to academe; first to receive it was United States president Woodrow Wilson.
But there are questions over the exact anniversary which is to be celebrated. Serge Wilhelm, a lecturer at Paris University VI, Pierre et Marie Curie, has studied its history, and believes "a celebration of six centuries would be more appropriate, as the 14th century was when it became a prestigious university centre where foreign teachers and students came from all over Western Europe".
But Vincent Courtillot of the education ministry says the anniversary marks many developments around 800 years ago. The weekly Le Canard Enchane mischievously claims the celebrations are "a homage to May 1968" by prime minister Lionel Jospin and education minister Claude All gre - a time when prolonged nationwide strikes by students and workers overturned French society.
With scholarship confined to the monasteries, Paris University was born of the medieval church. By the end of the 12th century the embryonic institution was a school for clerics, its teachings based on those of Ancient Greece but also influenced by developments in western Christianity and Islam. Established on the Left Bank of the Seine, it gave the area its "Latin Quarter" name, after the language spoken within its walls.
By its official constitution in 1231 Paris University had four faculties - arts (including mathematics, astronomy and music, as well as grammar, rhetoric and dialectic), theology, law and medicine. Robert de Sorbon, chaplain to King Louis IX (Saint-Louis), founded a college in 1257 to house scholars, which became the principal centre of the theology faculty.
The 1968 "events" which nearly brought down President de Gaulle's government led to profound social change, including long overdue reform of the archaic university system. One result was the experimental University of Vincennes (now Paris VIII and relocated in the poor northern suburb of Saint-Denis), the only university in France to accept students without the baccalaureat.
More crucially, the universities were reorganised into more democratic, independent bodies, and the old Sorbonne became 13 new universities - eight within Paris, the others in the surrounding Ile-de-France region which gained four more in the 1980s. The Sorbonne appellation continues in just three of the inner-city universities: Paris I, Pantheon-Sorbonne; Paris III, Sorbonne Nouvelle; and Paris IV, Paris-Sorbonne.
Jean-Claude Sergeant, director of the Institut du Monde Anglophone at Paris III, says the Sorbonne name is "of value to image-building strategies," especially when dealing with Americans.
During the past decade, the university system has greatly expanded following the socialist Universites 2000 programme which set a target of two million higher education students by the new century. Of these, 1.3 million are in universities - 220,000 in Paris - which, unlike the elite grandes ecoles and the technology institutes, are not allowed to select but must accept all applicants with the baccalaureat.
In practice selection occurs with the high failure rate after the first year. "Too many students leave without a diploma," says Professor Sergeant, who sees his job partly akin to a social worker keeping young people off the streets.
Now the universities of Paris are looking forward to yet new reforms, designed to bring them into line with other European systems, and a move out of outdated and overcrowded working conditions to more modern accommodation under the government's U3M (Universite du troisieme millenaire) programme.
While on Sunday at the Sorbonne the academics and politicians may reflect on the past, on Monday they will be planning the future. The conference "Towards a European University" (working languages English and French) will be devoted to founding a new university era, returning to the Renaissance ideals of international scholar mobility and interchange, as well as preparing for the urgent research, technological and employment challenges which will need to be met in the next century.