Earlier this month, a French university with an unfamiliar name, Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris, entered the Times Higher Education World University Rankings at an eye-catching 72nd position, becoming France’s most highly ranked institution by a comfortable margin.
This was one of the early results of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in French higher education. The Initiatives d’Excellence (Idex) programme was launched in 2010 by Nicolas Sarkozy to improve research, teaching and entrepreneurialism on French campuses, and to address the French system’s below-par performance in international university rankings.
The project is funded to the tune of €10.3 billion (£9.4 billion). Although such a sum is not game-changing when divided up among all the participants, it has nonetheless significantly affected French universities’ willingness to contemplate change.
The country’s international underperformance is putatively the result of the domination of its research landscape by national research organisations and the division of teaching between non-selective, fragmented universities and highly selective grandes écoles. The goal of Idex was to see some of these disparate elements merge into single, more comprehensive universities.
Unravelling the Paris-centric system, with its 21 separately governed University of Paris campuses and numerous grandes écoles, has proved very difficult. By allowing the grandes écoles the right to grant undergraduate and doctoral degrees, the ministry may have weakened their incentive to become more closely integrated with universities. However, they have gradually come to understand that they can do so without diluting their quality. Their relatively weak research performance (with a few exceptions, such as École Normale Supérieure) and, in engineering, their lack of critical mass have acted as further incentives to engage. The amalgams selected by the Idex process are expected to become single entities by 2020.
Selections were made in batches by an international jury, with the final cohort announced in February. Nearly 80 proposals were evaluated, encompassing research excellence, teaching, academic life and, most importantly, university governance. Six comprehensive universities – PSL, the University of Paris-Saclay, Sorbonne University, Grenoble Alpes University, the University of Lyon and the University of Côte d’Azur – have been awarded the provisional Idex label. Three others – the universities of Aix-Marseille, Bordeaux, Strasbourg – have had that status confirmed, while two more have seen it withdrawn but will be permitted to resubmit. In addition, nine regionally based institutions, often with strong technological components, have been provisionally granted the “I-site” label.
Those whose status is confirmed after a four-year probationary period will be awarded an endowment, the income from which is intended to be used in the support of imaginative efforts in research, hiring policy and teaching.
Idex applications were often driven by the hard sciences and resisted by humanities-dominated institutions. Yet in some cases, Idex has provided a much-needed lifeline to the humanities and social sciences, allowing them to reinvent themselves in innovative and exciting ways through close collaboration with science.
Initial attempts to mimic established giants in the international scene were replaced by a more pragmatic attempt to follow the lead of universities such as Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, which have dramatically improved their ranking on a short timescale.
The excellence initiative has helped French universities to overcome their insular outlook, and the benchmarking exercises have proved an enlightening experience for some. Indeed, internationalisation might constitute one of the most important achievements of the initiative. French universities are opening up, looking at similar universities in other countries, delivering courses in English and recruiting excellent young researchers from abroad.
Of course, challenges remain, including how to maintain the momentum once the endowments have been confirmed. Ways also need to be found to encourage previously unsuccessful and non-participating institutions to develop projects to improve their institutional standing. However, we expect that creating the “university of excellence” label will help to maintain the competitive pressure that will allow France’s universities to take their place on the world stage.
John Ludden is executive director of the British Geological Survey in Nottingham, and was previously director of research in earth sciences at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris. Philippe Le Prestre is professor of politics at Laval University in Quebec, and Jean-Marc Rapp is a former rector of the University of Lausanne. All were members of the Idex international committee.