French leave, but Anglo-Saxon attitudes linger

February 11, 2010

Britain and France may lie only 21 miles apart, with their capitals separated by just a two-hour train journey, but when it comes to academic traffic, it is largely a one-way track.

A conference on "Franco-British Academic Partnerships" held last week at the French Institute in London heard that while there are about 13,000 French students in Britain, there are only about 2,500 British students in France.

The 150 or so delegates listened to accounts of many examples of successful partnerships between institutions in the two countries.

Students at the London School of Economics, for example, can now opt for four different double degrees with Sciences Po, probably its closest French equivalent.

"They learn the British view of Europe in England and the French view of Europe in Paris," said Sir Howard Davies, director of the LSE. He added that students emerged "very well informed but also somewhat schizophrenic".

However, French academics and administrators reported "a lot of reticence on the British side" to cross-Channel collaboration - one project that facilitates an exchange of a mere three students a year took 13 years to get off the ground.

Frederic Ogee, vice-president for international relations at the Universite Paris Diderot, described the UK as "a difficult partner, though one of the best loved". Explaining that he had not managed to set up a single joint PhD, he raised the question of "whether British universities really want collaborations".

Others spoke of cultural factors that can inhibit co-operation.

French universities are still shocked by the idea of students having to pay tuition fees, and since scientists are usually employed as civil servants, their salary costs are not built into research budgets.

In addition, the rigidity of their career structures can make it difficult for French researchers who have sought experience abroad to return to their national system.

Monique Canto-Sperber, director of the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, explained how they were developing "special welcoming programmes" for British students used to better on-campus facilities and social amenities, and more individualised styles of learning.

The conference, which was sponsored by Times Higher Education, concluded with a challenge to British institutions to think more deeply about why they should pursue partnerships.

Bill Rammell, the former Higher Education Minister, spoke of how his own life had been enriched by spending a year in France, and suggested that "the skills employers are looking for are those driven by living and working abroad".

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