Nothing better illustrates the difficulties in understanding how higher education works in Paris than the term “Sorbonne”.
Historically associated with the original University of Paris, the name is now carried by three of its successor institutions – Paris-Sorbonne University, Paris Sorbonne Nouvelle University and Pantheon-Sorbonne University – which share classrooms in the historic site of the Sorbonne in the city’s Latin Quarter.
But to further cloud matters, a number of universities in Paris are merging into clusters, and three of the five new groups are using the coveted name to give them clout abroad: Sorbonne Universités, Sorbonne Paris Cité and Hautes Études Sorbonne Arts et Métiers (HeSam).
“It’s not excluded that it will create some confusion,” admitted Denis Pelletier, head of HeSam. “But I’m sure that students and lecturers will learn to tell the difference.”
“Our aim is to create a global university,” explained Barthélémy Jobert, head of Sorbonne Universités, which will include Paris-Sorbonne and Université Pierre et Marie Curie.
Some of the universities involved in the groupings – known as Comues – will be fully merged, while others will remain looser associations of extant institutions.
Ironically, the restructurings and rebrandings, which will complicate things for those already struggling to grasp the idiosyncrasies of Paris university life, grew out of an effort to improve the visibility of the capital’s institutions abroad and to give students more choice and flexibility.
Parisian universities suffer from poor ratings in international academic rankings: Pierre et Marie Curie is the first French university to appear in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, at 96th position. Many experts think that this is because French universities are simply too small and underpowered to win top rankings positions and should merge.
“It’s annoying that we don’t have great ratings [in world rankings],” Professor Pelletier said.
“We know that they matter even though we don’t entirely agree with their method. So we are looking for a compromise between our centralised model and the private model,” he added, a compromise that means more autonomy for universities and encouragement to raise funds independently.
The consolidation of universities began in 2006, and the Comues are expected to present their legal statutes this summer.
The restructures meant that universities in Paris had to find “new distinct names”, said Sophie Blitman, a journalist for the French education website educpros.fr. Many naturally scrambled to snatch up the coveted “Sorbonne” name, with administrators registering close to 70 trademark names containing the term in the past eight years.
This led to a “battle”, Ms Blitman said, because the three universities already using the term did not want to share the name.
But Professor Jobert denied that there was any disagreement. “There was no conflict,” he insisted. “We didn’t end up in court.”
Out of the fray, several groupings have emerged, and it now appears that relations have improved.
Last month, the heads of the clusters published a code of good behaviour, which states that relations should be based on “cooperation” and not “hostility or aggression”. In case of disagreement, they pledge to work towards a solution “in good faith without the intervention of a third party”.
What’s in a name?
All, however, has not been resolved.
The Paris universities are discovering that the name “Sorbonne” is a valuable asset and a brand that can attract students, lecturers and investors.
In a move that raised eyebrows, in 2006 Paris-Sorbonne opened a subsidiary in the Gulf called “Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi”, a venture that generates hundreds of thousands of pounds each year, according to French media reports.
“The history, the myth and the branding around the Sorbonne matter,” Professor Pelletier noted. “Some of my foreign students ask me if I could add ‘Sorbonne’ to their diplomas. You have to manage this nowadays.”
It could be that the clusters evolve into several large universities in Paris with distinct identities and names.
“I wouldn’t be against two big universities – Paris and Sorbonne – much like New York has Columbia and New York University,” Professor Jobert said. “Ultimately, things will settle down.”
So will the pre-1968 Sorbonne re-emerge? No, Professor Pelletier said. “Our aim isn’t to recreate the old [unified] Sorbonne. The Sorbonne has a considerable weight internationally, so we couldn’t give it to one university; what would happen to the 13 others?”
This means that the Latin Quarter site, remodelled under Richelieu in the 17th century, will remain divided, with three universities and three different clusters sharing the site.