Fury over France’s new ‘pseudo’ PhDs

Plans to allow graduates of France’s most elite higher education institutions to claim the title of PhD without taking a viva have enraged some Gallic scholars

July 13, 2016
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Minor route: ‘the elite have invented a new type of doctorate to help protect the grande école pseudo-elite’

Allowing Oxbridge alumni to upgrade their bachelor’s degrees to a master’s for £10 has long enraged graduates of other universities, particularly those with a “real” MA.

But what if graduates of these elite institutions could also lay claim to a PhD? This scenario might sound fanciful but it is in essence, some argue, what is about to happen in France.

From September, new rules will create a radical new way for the graduates of France’s grandes écoles to gain the magic letters “PhD” after their name – one that skips the need for a viva or years of doctoral research.

Under the plans, announced in May, those who have passed through grandes écoles – highly selective institutions attended by only about 5 per cent of students – will be able to seek a PhD if, alongside their course, they attend training classes as part of a “professional project” related to the workplace.

“It’s quite an easy process compared to a doctorate, which requires three to five years of intense study on a specific theme,” said François Garçon, professor of history at Panthéon-Sorbonne University – Paris 1.

“You also must argue your research findings before an academic panel, which is something this new pseudo-doctorate does not require,” Professor Garçon added.

Instead, those seeking a PhD will need only to be “patronised” by a supervisor and to take various classes over the course of a three-year period to gain a doctorate, he explained.

“You don’t need to write a thesis, but will need to take three to five courses and take some exams to get a PhD,” he said.

So why is France now set on a course that, Professor Garçon believes, will devalue the currency of its PhDs?

The changes are motivated by a desire to increase the international recognition of a grande école education, which is viewed in France as vastly superior to that offered in the country’s largely unselective universities, he explained.

“People in France – particularly the elite – think a PhD is worth less than graduating from a grande école engineering school, which is frankly ridiculous,” he said.

Many within the elite even believe that attending an obscure grande école in Perpignan is better than having a PhD from an internationally renowned university such as the Sorbonne, Professor Garçon added.

“But this type of degree does not mean anything abroad, so this is why they are…a kind of fraudulent PhD,” he said. “The elite have now invented a new type of doctorate to help protect the grande école pseudo-elite, but this new PhD is really false money.”

Sophia Stavrou, an associate researcher at Aix-Marseille University, said that the doctoral reforms represent a “broader change in the philosophy of doctoral programmes and higher education in general”, in which original intellectual thought is relatively sidelined by the needs of the labour market.

“Professionalisation becomes the main objective of the doctoral programme through the introduction of professionalising training modules [and] by rendering necessary the conception of a personal ‘professional project’ for each PhD student,” said Dr Stavrou, who is also a lecturer in the University of Cyprus’ department of social and political sciences.

“One can also note a certain weakening of the scientific relevance of the doctoral work as [that of] an academic contributing to scientific knowledge,” she added, saying that the doctorate is now described in the ministerial decree as merely a “work of ‘scientific, economic, social or cultural interest’”.

While the reforms may simply formalise some provisions that are already available to doctoral students, they have been “mainly interpreted as an attack on the university [as an] institution”, Dr Stavrou added.

The biggest fear is the “loss of the universities’ privilege, as the academic institution par excellence, to confer doctoral diplomas [in favour of] the grandes écoles, whose own diplomas are more valued within the French two-speed higher education system”, she said.


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