Grandes écoles, grand designs: France told to think global

Clea Caulcutt on elite group chief's contentious plans to attract high-fee-paying foreign students

April 28, 2011

Credit: Ramon Haazen/Alamy

Pierre Tapie's proposal sounds like a call to arms. The president of the Conférence des Grandes Écoles has urged France's universities to embrace globalisation and tap into the rapidly growing and increasingly mobile student populations of India and China.

In a recent editorial in the daily newspaper Le Monde, Dr Tapie advocates trebling the number of foreign students in French higher education, boosting the proportion from 12 per cent of the total number of students to 30 per cent in the next 10 years.

His plans would see students from outside the European Union charged fees close to £12,000. A system of scholarships would be introduced for outstanding students who could not afford to pay their way.

Dr Tapie, who heads ESSEC Business School, argues that it is crucial to act quickly.

"The opportunity for growth is now. If we don't grasp it, in 10 years it will be too late and France will have failed to position itself as one of the world's key destinations."

The course of action advocated by Dr Tapie makes him something of an iconoclast in a country that is run by a tightly knit elite of leaders, businessmen and engineers who were all educated in the country's grandes écoles.

But Yves Poilane, director of Telecom ParisTech, another of the grandes ecoles, has argued that the expansion of courses taught in English rather than French is an important step in boosting higher education enrolment.

"In computer sciences and telecommunications, we struggle to recruit the best students available because competition is so very, very intense," he said, adding that the students he would like to recruit do not necessarily speak French.

Dr Tapie goes as far as calling for the Toubon law, which restricts the use of English in France, to be repealed in higher education.

Under the terms of this law, all university courses must be taught in French, with the exception of language courses and those offered by institutions that welcome foreign students or provide "international courses".

The law's vagueness offers the grandes écoles room to manoeuvre. But the elite institutions know they are treading on sensitive ground, and they have felt forced to issue denials that they are turning their back on the French language.

Many insist that their English-speaking foreign students leave university with a better grasp of the French language, and even more importantly, a love of French culture.

"France has nothing to lose, because our lifestyle will not only be more protected than if it were kept in a museum, but it will be more vivid if we share it with others," said Dr Tapie.

"France is exactly like China. We have a very robust culture that is several thousand years old. At ESSEC, foreign students enrich the life of the school. Instead of diluting our culture, they make it more universal."

Scholarly use of French defended

Nevertheless, Dr Tapie admitted that calling for France to embrace globalisation was an extremely unpopular idea.

"When we first presented our ideas at a press conference in March 2010, they were perceived as very embarrassing," he said.

Le Monde waited six months before publishing the editorial it commissioned from Dr Tapie on the issue. Staunch advocates of the French language were quick to criticise his proposals.

In a rebuttal also published in Le Monde, Bernard Sergent, a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), accuses Dr Tapie of giving up on the French language and of playing into the hands of the far-right National Front.

"French is the world's second most important scientific language and Dr Tapie's proposals will destroy it," he wrote.

While such arguments do not hold water with the majority of France's scientists, others have campaigned to defend the scholarly use of French.

In 2008, several thousand researchers signed a petition calling on the AERES, the French equivalent of the UK's Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, to stop snubbing academic work published in French.

Christine Solnon, president of the French Association for Constraint Programming, has denied prioritising the use of French over opportunities for international impact, but said that her efforts are meant to support young researchers who are not yet fluent in English.

"I'm not asking for AERES to rate scientific journals written in French as highly as international journals, but our work should be taken into account," she said.

AERES insists, however, that the language of publication does not figure among the criteria its evaluators use to assess scientific journals.

Dr Tapie has found some allies beyond the elite classrooms of the grandes écoles, but has yet to recruit the full support of the academy.

Jean-Charles Pomerol, president of Pierre and Marie Curie University, France's largest scientific complex, said that while he believes in increasing tuition fees for non- European students, he has held back on introducing any new policies.

"We take our cue from the state, so we are waiting to find out whether we should impose higher tuition fees on foreign students," he said, adding that he believed it was unfair to ask French taxpayers to fund the education of wealthy foreigners.

Professor Pomerol acknowledged that tuition fees are a sensitive question, and said that academic and student unions would battle hard to prevent a fee hike for foreign students.

"They would say that it was just the first step before introducing fees for everybody," he said, adding that it was difficult to tell if their fears were justified.

Meanwhile, the academic union SNESUP (Syndicat National de l'Enseignement Supérieur) argues that offering classes in English is a luxury few universities could afford, even if foreign students paid higher tuition fees.

"Universities are so underfunded today that I can't imagine opening such courses, because we struggle to pay our regular language teachers," said Stephane Tassel, the union's secretary general.

Damaging to research

Mr Tassel claimed the decision of the grandes écoles to target more foreign students would damage research and higher education in France.

"We are going to see four to five ivory towers emerge in an academic desert in which it will be impossible to do any proper research," he said.

Mr Tassel also argued that in the race to woo international students, the grandes écoles have a head start.

"It's interesting to note that these proposals come from the grandes écoles, which receive two to three times the funds allocated to (non-elite) universities," he said.

In a sector known for strikes and demonstrations, it would appear that all the ingredients for unrest are in place. But most observers feel it is unlikely that any will occur before the next presidential elections.

It is more likely that the grandes écoles, some of which are private institutions, will continue to quietly usher in change.

Business school HEC Paris, for example, has long embraced globalisation and high tuition fees. Overall, the institution's enrolment is 24 per cent non-European. And of the students on its prestigious MBA programme, 70 per cent are non-European and an additional 15 per cent come from European countries other than France.

"We're already there," said HEC Paris general director Bernard Ramanantsoa. "For us the change was progressive."

He added that the internationalisation of higher education had already blurred divisions between grandes écoles and universities. While some universities are entering the fray of international competition, others are stalling.

"It's a question of willpower for some," he said, "but for others it's a question of resources."

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