Super-campus booster

France is using governance reform and investment to push its universities up the league tables. Will it work? asks Paul Benneworth

July 8, 2010

Even France is not immune to a preoccupation with its performance in international higher education league tables. And in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, three of the four French institutions in the top 200 are not even universities, but grandes écoles, highly selective institutions that receive more than a quarter of science funding but educate less than one in 20 French graduates.

In his new book A Chance for European Universities, Jo Ritzen, president of Maastricht University, sums up French institutions, along with those of Spain, Germany and Italy, as the mediocre face of the European academy. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, too, ticked off France for its sluggish higher education reforms in its Economic Survey of France 2009.

After his election in 2007, President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to prioritise higher education and research during his term of office. He planned to raise spending on science by 10 per cent to EUR35 billion (£28.6 billion) annually, and to create five to 10 world-leading universities with a high visibility in world rankings.

French universities’ governance problems date from the 1970s. After the summer of 1968, large urban universities were broken up and more democratic governance systems introduced. In France, as across Europe, the notion of the “democratic mass university” sits uneasily with the demands of the 21st century.

The central tenet of France’s higher education reforms is encompassed in a law establishing the autonomy of universities, passed in 2007. It gives universities new powers and responsibilities, creating strong university presidents who can recruit staff, set wage rates and sign partnership agreements with businesses and consortia independently of centralised control. In return, institutions receive a greater share of their income based on their output and a reduced share through a multi-year contract. A research and higher education evaluation agency measures institutional performance, which now accounts for 20 rather than 3 per cent of state grants.

To date, 51 of France’s 85 universities have been granted autonomous status, but the universities undergoing reformation are not highly placed in the most credible university ranking systems. And despite the strikes that hit French universities a year ago, the government is ploughing on with its reforms.

Alongside the reforms, France is also investing heavily in its top-rated institutions to create world-class universities. Using the moniker Operation Campus, a competition identified 10 pôles de recherche et d’enseignement supérieur (PRESs), or super-campuses. Funded by the sale of a small state share in Electricité de France, EUR5 billion is being invested in PRES consortia of universities and grandes écoles, alongside the public laboratories that dominate France’s research landscape. A further EUR10 billion to continue these developments was recently announced as part of the EUR35 billion Great Loan package.

Of this EUR10 billion, about three-quarters will be invested in renovating a handful of university complexes, the PRES programme will be boosted by an extra EUR1.5 billion, and EUR1 billion will be made available for the Saclay campus in suburban Paris.

The Campus du Plateau de Saclay project is probably the closest thing France has to a world-class university. The campus – which was created explicitly to rival the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Cambridge and Stanford University – hosts two PRESs. Saclay embodies the French world-class university ideal: 10 per cent of the French research effort in a single institution, with a highly respected scientist as president, employing two physics Nobel laureates among its 9,000 researchers on a single site close to Orly airport.

What is most remarkable about the plan is that it is old-fashioned Keynesianism, borrowing to invest in higher education at a time when many other countries are having to slash their higher education budgets. So will it pay a double dividend, and help France to cheaply acquire the distressed assets and redundant researchers from more fervent budget cutters?

France’s borrowing on this scale is likely to push interest rates up, both in the eurozone and in other countries running large deficits. That will affect not least the UK, with its 13 per cent budget deficit. So when we see the Operation Campus institutes rising up the rankings, perhaps we should afford ourselves a slight sense of satisfaction, because we are all paying for France’s world-class universities now.

Paul Benneworth is a senior researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies, University of Twente, the Netherlands.

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