The French higher education sector has often been accused of being too inward-looking, with a tendency to overestimate its reputation compared with the wider global perception and the rankings reality.
In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-2016, there were only 27 French institutions in the top 800, with almost two-thirds falling below the top 300.
The only French institution in the top 100 is the École Normale Supérieure – one of the grandes écoles – while the highest ranked public university is Pierre and Marie Curie University in joint 113th place.
However, in a bid to improve France's global position, the government embarked on a drive four years ago towards getting universities, grandes écoles and research laboratories together in new groupings called ComUE (communautés d’universités et établissements) and giving them the legal status of a university so that they could together punch above their individual weight internationally.
ComUE was introduced to the French system in the 2013 Law on Higher Education and Research. There are now 20 ComUE in France.
Thierry Coulhon, president of PSL Research University, itself a ComUE, said that gradually the French system is “moving forwards”.
“The movement is built on the strength of the players and that’s quite new in France,” he told THE. “My job is to push forward a relatively new initiative. What I can say, as far as the global landscape is concerned, it has simplified a lot; so now you have a small number of important players. This has huge consequences in terms of attractiveness of international relationships.
“We now have to move quickly, we have a few years to succeed, but I do think we can indeed create, at last, world-class universities.”
Sebastian Stride, a senior research expert for education consultancy SIRIS Academic, said that French institutions had not really “confronted" the globalisation of higher education and research "until the last 10 years”.
Dr Stride said that he thought recent French higher education legislation stemmed from the advent of multifaceted global rankings in the early 2000s, in which France performed worse than expected.
However, he remains unconvinced that the ComUE are the drivers for a more streamlined, internationally competitive higher education sector.
“These are highly unstable structures,” he said. “The membership changes regularly. Some in the French government thought that by declaring that these structures were universities, they would be universities. I don’t think it’s helping the system if you accept them as universities.
“When you’ve got a single legal entity, this is what you consider a university. If you’ve got a lot of legal entities, which themselves are subsumed within a larger legal entity, this does not have any legal authority over the constituent legal entities; [the result is] a university system.”
Dr Stride points to France’s provincial city institutions as those structured in a way that will appeal to the global sector. The universities of Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Aix-Marseille, he said, represent “unified universities”, with “fully integrated research organisms”.
“This is an international model, there’s no problem,” he said. “You still have a problem with the grandes écoles. Few of them have really integrated.”
But for Professor Coulhon, this mentality is what has “killed us for years”.
“There is no reason for uniformity, or an appearance of uniformity,” he said. “The landscape will only change globally. [The institutions] know that they could not survive in the 21st century, could not play in the global game if they’re not in a real alliance. It’s not a matter of size; it’s a matter of global offer.”
This “global offer” encapsulates many things including courses for attracting international students, but a major aspect of the French mission is to place the country on a research plain that aligns its universities with the world’s leading institutions.
In 2009, then president Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned two former prime ministers – Michel Rocard and Alain Juppé – to write a report assessing how much money should be raised in loans for higher education institutions and research laboratories.
Off the back of their recommendations, he announced €35 billion (£27.42 billion) for the Investments for the Future programme – Programme Investissements d’Avenir (PIA) – of which €7.7 billion was earmarked for Excellence Initiatives, or Idex, designed to provide France with a collection of world-class universities to compete on research.
Internationalising is a key part of the scheme, with universities’ recruitment policies aimed at top-level researchers forming international partnerships, and strengthening the global attractiveness of the universities for foreign students and researchers.
PSL was one of the three original Idex, but the trio were swiftly joined by five more. Since then, two more have been added. PSL has just written its proposal for remaining an Idex and being eligible for government funding.
Professor Coulhon said that Idex had been vital to his institution.
“We have an agreement with the University of Cambridge and Cambridge has few international agreements. I’m very happy about this, it’s working and it’s developing,” he said. “We’re working with New York University, we’re working with Columbia University, we have an agreement with Technion Israel Institute of Technology and that’s new in the French system.
“Of course, all of the institutions in PSL are very well known abroad, but together they have access to the right [people], we can have agreements at the global level that we did not have before.
“I can only build the brand of PSL on the basis of these brands [in the ComUE]. I have to respect their autonomy because they are creative, but they do more and more things together, because I [have funding from Idex].”
The state and the system: is autonomy the key for sorting out HE issues?
Although they differ on how French higher education is best structured, Thierry Coulhon, president of PSL Research University, and Sebastian Stride, senior research expert for education consultancy SIRIS Academic, agree that besides investment, the government needs to give the sector more autonomy in their decisions, especially around student selection.
“What we can predict is that the state will probably play a less important role and the actors [universities] will invent and impose a strategy. More autonomy, more efficiency,” Professor Coulhon told Times Higher Education.
Dr Stride is blunter: “Let the university decide what it wants to be and what it wants to do. It wants to select students or not, emphasise research or not, let them be free to experiment and decide.
“[Student selection] has remained, to an extent, a taboo. The fact that universities can’t select by law their undergraduate students is just not possible over the long term. At some stage, the question is going to have to be asked how they want to proceed.”
However, at a recent Society of Research into Higher Education event about the French system, Laurent Cosnefroy, professor of higher education at the Institut Français de l’Education in the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, suggested that many issues in the system were not down to not being able to select students.
Professor Cosnefroy, whose presentation concentrated on the poor retention of undergraduate students at French universities, said that the problem was “more an issue of curriculum design and teaching practices” than selection.
According to figures from the Ministry of National Education, Higher Education and Research, of 100 students entering an undergraduate programme, only 40.8 go into the second year. The overall success rate of graduates was 39.2 per cent.
“Sixty per cent failure is seen more and more as a scandal,” he said. “The problem is now [finding] the solution to the higher percentage of failure. Some proposals are towards selection before entering university.
“But I’m sure that the higher education stakeholders don’t agree with this solution…To my mind, I’m satisfied with the system, the free access to higher education, because if you select your students, which criteria will you select them through?
"It’s a good system providing we increase the success rate at the end of the first year. This is a matter of teaching practices and curriculum design.”
HE system has been 'fragmented', says minister
Speaking to Times Higher Education earlier this year during a visit to London, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, French minister of national education, higher education and research, agreed that her country’s sector was somewhat “fragmented” and needed to internationalise more, despite her believing that its global position was “quite reasonable”.
“Yes, we have a fragmented system, but French universities are quite well respected and one sign of that is the number of foreign students who come to study in France, it’s the third highest in the world,” Ms Vallaud-Belkacem said.
“We have a system that is affordable, financially speaking. When other countries decided to increase their student fees, we decided not to do that.”
She said that part of the reason for reforming the system through the ComUE was “to increase international visibility” so that with institutions on the same campus it would mean “it’s easier for them to go out internationally, reach out internationally”.
Ms Vallaud-Belkacem added that the policy also sought to support “educational practices and research which prepare tomorrow’s France”.