Will local or global win in French higher education?

Sciences Po’s dean of research reflects on the currents of change within her country’s university sector

February 25, 2018
Source: iStock
Do regional mergers or groupings of French universities hinder them from collaborating and competing internationally?

Over the past decade, French universities have been asked to “be a lot more competitive than they were before, to run as fast as they can in the international race”, said Christine Musselin, dean of research at Sciences Po.

But the government’s method of driving these improvements has been to push higher education institutions into greater collaboration at the local level, most recently through mergers or through the creation of new groupings known as communautés d'universités et établissements, or ComUE.

In her new book, La Grande Course des Universités (The Great University Race), Professor Musselin, a sociologist who has published widely on higher education policy, tries to “explain that these logics are in contradiction”.

The central problem, in Professor Musselin’s view, is that local collaboration has had varying levels of success.

There were cases, she told Times Higher Education, where “mergers have successfully created new institutions with a single identity. Strasbourg had three universities…specialising in science, social science and the humanities. They decided of their own accord to merge in the mid-2000s. They became the single University of Strasbourg again at the start of 2009 and successfully applied to become an IdEx [initiative d’excellence].”

In Lyons, by contrast, “you have three universities and many grandes écoles that are supposed to coordinate with each other and at the same time to be part of the international competition. But Lyons is a higher education hub like Singapore, so why would you bring all those institutions into one?”

While Professor Musselin acknowledged that “Paris does make sense as a ‘territory’”, the city’s institutions now form part of several separate groupings, because “you can’t bring [them] all together”. In 2014, Sciences Po became one of eight institutions making up the Université Sorbonne Paris Cité, which has 120,000 students and its own director as well as “a president, a board, [and] an academic board, replicating what you have at institutional level”.

“There was appetite for new collaborations and projects but no desire to bring all the institutions together,” Professor Musselin reflected. “The idea was to create an esprit de corps. As of now, the individual universities are in the rankings and not the ComUE, but what is expected is that most ComUE will become universities and not university systems. It hasn’t happened yet.”

Meanwhile, added Professor Musselin, “we want to have as much collaboration with major universities across the world as with Sciences Po’s sister institutions within Paris”.

Some of these collaborations arise out of “a bottom-up relationship which becomes much more institutionalised”. Sciences Po has collaborated with the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, for example, and has now created a jointly funded centre called MaxPo, which studies economic sociology and political economy. Other partnerships with universities such as the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Cambridge, and Columbia and Princeton universities are “much more institutional and top-down”.

But if there remain significant tensions between the “logics” of territory-based groupings and internationalism, what are Professor Musselin’s predictions for the future?

“It is difficult to understand what the Macron government exactly aims at,” she replied, “except that it seems open to experimentation…There have been recent declarations from the ministry saying that we have excessive organisational structures, which are not very efficient, so I suppose they want to change that and come up with new ways of organising the sector through experimentation. This might lead to the end of the ComUE, at least as they are now.”


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