Grand divide leads to ranking taboo

November 8, 1996

University ranking remains a taboo topic in France, where the traditional principle of a clear divide between hyper-selective grandes ecoles and non-selective, unranked universities still meets with widespread social and political consensus, writes Stella Hughes.

The advent of mass higher education has led to many families opting to educate their children in lycees which specifically prepare pupils for entrance examinations to the grandes ecoles.

In contrast, undergraduate university entrance is mainly non-selective, with students going to the nearest institution.

The Comite National d'Evaluation does not rank institutions but has begun to produce comparative cross-country surveys of particular courses. Although there is no official raking of institutions, a university's prestige is assessed in practice in a variety of ways.

The number of PhD students and successful candidates for the top Agregation diploma are widely seen as significant indicators but have to be hunted down as there are no official lists. With no listed research ratings either, top research universities sometimes produce their own.

Strasbourg's Universite Louis Pasteur recently commissioned an independent study of its performance in the international citations index in biology and chemistry to demonstrate its excellent record in those fields.

But initiatives such as this are an exception. The CNE recently held a meeting with university presidents to galvanise them into promoting their institutions with more energetic public relations initiatives.

Even top institutions, such as Paris IV Sorbonne and Paris IX Dauphine tend not to pursue an active public relations policy to promote their university's image.

Andre Staropoli, who edits the official university audits for the CNE, says: "The personnel directors I meet are always calling for a United States-style ranking.

"But that is just not French. There is a visceral reaction against it."

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