French higher education ‘isn’t where it should be’, says business school dean

Associate dean at HEC Paris says French institutions must look to international peers if they want to compete globally

December 20, 2015
Sorbonne University students sitting on window ledge
Source: Reuters
Cross-cultural dialogue: ‘we want to be open to the profiles of students…to talk about terrorism but also mindfulness’

The university campus, with its myriad opportunities for engagement, is an important place for students to develop as people, not just as scholars. And in light of recent terrorist attacks and the grim history of violence on campus, it is all the more vital that it remain so.

This is the view of Eloïc Peyrache, associate dean for master’s programmes at the business school HEC Paris, who gave an interview to Times Higher Education at the annual conference of the Global Alliance in Management Education (CEMS) last month.

CEMS is an organisation of leading international business schools that aims to educate future global business leaders through its master’s in international management. It now has 30 members following the recent addition of Korea University Business School.

In response to the Paris terrorist attacks in November that claimed 130 lives, HEC took the actions that any large institution would, Professor Peyrache said: ensuring the safety of staff and students, and offering support on campus to those traumatised by the events. 

Such tragic events, while difficult to handle emotionally, could nevertheless be useful in starting a dialogue between people on campus about topical matters, and could also inform teaching and learning. At an international institution such as HEC, this has even more resonance.

“We want [campus] to be widely open to the profiles of students,” Professor Peyrache said. “We’ll invite them to talk about terrorism, security, geopolitics but also about mindfulness, meditation and how to react to those things.

“I see the [university] campus, and it’s going to be even more important in the future with the digital world, as the place where you produce and transmit knowledge; it’s also the place where you pass on experience from the older to the younger [generations]. It’s a place where you share experience and go through life-changing experiences. Cross-cultural management is something you learn in a classroom but also something you have to experience.”

The urge to merge

Professor Peyrache was keen to stress the role of higher education in breaking down national barriers and helping to develop “global citizens”, but he noted that opinion was “polarised” on whether French universities in general were achieving this.

“The big concern today is about the structure, not what’s taught in universities,” he said. “We have great engineering schools, business schools, but they’re…not part of a university.

“[People in higher education] want to set up a university that has more international visibility because they’ll be physically bigger.” 

This is what has happened at HEC, which is one part of the newly formed Université Paris-Saclay, which comprises two universities, 11 university-level colleges and seven research organisations. Although Paris-Saclay is one of the “most promising” developments, it was no easy ride, Professor Peyrache said.

“We wanted to have an MIT à la Française,” he said. “But MIT is very much integrated, so then people asked what’s the model? [We have] people pushing in other directions.

“I’m not saying it’s unique [in France], but at some other places in the world you see one institution being part of a university, or one department being willing to get independence; we’re going in the other direction. We are taking powerful brands with egos and saying: ‘Forget about your name, get together and we’ll set up a new university.’” 

Does this suggest that there is a certain amount of navel-gazing in French institutions? Professor Peyrache said that universities were starting to understand the importance of collaboration.

“We need our students to meet engineering students, designers, people who write code. We have all the incentives in the world to collaborate, but when you structure something like this, who has the power?” he said. Consequently, he does not think French education is “where it should be”.

“We do look at what’s happening outside, but not enough,” he said. “The business schools in France are very good because we’ve been very much exposed to competition. It’s less the case for engineering schools, and absolutely not the case for the French university.

“Competition matters a lot to us, so we’ve been looking at what’s happening in the rest of the world a lot. I look at what the LSE, Princeton and MIT are doing. If you don’t have to face competition to survive, then you’re not moving.

“French universities aren’t doing this enough. Some brands are very famous in the world, but overestimated.”

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