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Why do French universities lag behind in international rankings?

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Why do French universities lag behind in international rankings?

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

In France, it’s customary to think of the higher education and research sector as a public service. To speak of it as an industry or to say the role of branding is as decisive as in the car or luxury goods markets may seem shocking.

Yet looking at how French research is managed from a marketing angle reveals how incapable it is of achieving the goals that have been set for it.

Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, Oxford and Cambridge are undoubtedly complicated organisations where decisions are difficult to make and where, as in France, researchers are struggling to maintain their independence. But they’ve established themselves as global brands, supported by effective organisations.

Whenever one of these universities’ researchers publishes in a prestige journal, they promote the brand and increase the credibility of the degrees awarded to students. This in turn attracts students, teachers and researchers worldwide.

The accumulated status and goodwill can be transformed into financial resources that can launch ambitious research projects, fund global advertising campaigns, organise major scientific events and distribute scholarships to students in need.

Lagging behind

Faced with these venerable, autonomous and globally renowned institutions, the French higher education sector resembles an unruly pile of overlapping institutions, each one with its own status, boards, policies and weak brands.

Individually, French institutions have neither prestige nor the means to promote themselves internationally and – worse – are constantly shifting their focus because of administrative battles.

When a French researcher publishes a scientific paper, which institution should they give the scientific credit? Some give their primary affiliation to research funding bodies, not universities. This does nothing to help the French academic sector attract students.

As for institutions such as the Collège de France, École Normal Supérieure, EHESS, Sciences Po, École Polytechnique, or the École des Mines, they’re prestigious, but they do not make enough impact on the world stage.

Science Po in Paris. Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

And then there’s the Sorbonne, both world-renowned and venerable. It was split apart in the reforms of May 1968, however, and its name is fought over by the individual universities that were spun off from its constituent parts. Other French institutions have also been broken apart or blended together, and either aren’t recognisable brands or are too young, and none are sufficiently promoted internationally.

In short, France still hasn’t entered the race for global higher education, and it’s not just a question of language. International students will come to study in France if and only if the degrees awarded have genuine prestige.

Think like a football team

Humiliated by France’s place in the international rankings – as questionable as they may be – the French government decided to concentrate its resources in the physical world, building new campuses and reorganising the many universities. While ambitious, such projects are expensive and take a long time to implement – time during which the government could be investing much more effectively in the immaterial.

Constructing hundreds of square meters of university buildings in the hope that this will somehow miraculously bring together all the bureaucratic entities they contain is the most expensive, slowest, and riskiest approach possible.

What France needs to do is create global brands, and quickly. We must say to every academic and each researcher what brand he or she should champion. They must be credible, highly promoted and few in number. These brands must in turn focus on enhancing and supporting the talented researchers who are their main resources, just like the best players on football teams.

Investing in the immaterial means building up a select few global brands that concentrate scientific credit, guarantee the value of diplomas, and raise and redistribute funding, all backed by massive investment in the latest forms of communication and promotion.

An administrative mess

If France has no university brands, it’s also because we have no autonomous education and research institutions. Instead, they’re divided and cluttered with overlapping bodies and pseudo-democracies that are subordinate to governmental ministries, which constantly shift their policies. This is the polar opposite of a consistent and long-term strategy.

Given the administrative structure we’ve inherited – one that can’t be changed overnight, we need to quickly create leading brands and then gradually consolidate administrative units underneath them. This is essential. New university buildings can wait.

In this digital age, physical offices are perhaps unnecessary expenses. Legal and statutory consolidation will follow only if they’re really essential for the proper functioning of research teams, rather than additional bureaucracy and conflicts. “Invisible colleges” that freely gather people who wish to work together will happen regardless of their status and their home institutions.

My academic signature reveals association with six different institutions: AgroParisTech, Université d'Orsay and the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (ENS, EHESS, CNRS), but we could also add Labex Tepsis, Paris Sciences et Lettres, ParisTech and Agenium, all of which claim to have brands and “communication policies”.

That would make nine associated institutions for one person – isn’t that just a little ridiculous?


Translated from the French by Leighton Walter Kille.

This article was originally published in French