Why France is building a mega-university at Paris-Saclay to rival Silicon Valley

Aerial vue of the Paris-Saclay campus under construction. Paris-Saclay

After decades of planning, a new generation of students and researchers will start their first full academic year in September 2015 at the University of Paris-Saclay, a huge, ambitious project to bring together a group of 19 higher education institutions alongside a business cluster on the outskirts of the French capital. It has been dubbed the French Silicon Valley.

The rationale behind Paris-Saclay is to reach the same size and level of excellence as Harvard, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge. With its higher education institutions already attracting 15% of the potential research budget in France, Paris-Saclay should give birth to Europe’s top multi-disciplinary university, and bring a well-needed boost to France after years of shame caused by poor performance in global university rankings.

Formally incorporated in 2014, the University of Paris-Saclay has federated together two universities, ten grandes écoles (professional schools in engineering, agronomy, telecommunications, life sciences and management), and seven national research institutions – or at least some of their laboratories. All of them were previously autonomous and most of them are prestigious in their own right. They include the university of Paris-Orsay, the École Polytechnique, the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan, the HEC business school, laboratories of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and of the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique.

There is a great variety in the institutions which are a mix of private, public and non-profit. Some are non-selective public universities that cover a wide set of disciplines, such as the University of Paris-Orsay. While others are highly selective and elite grandes écoles.

Covering the whole scientific spectrum from education and basic research to technology and development, the university is strongly linked to a technological cluster set up in Saclay in 2004. The campus and cluster are set on 7,700 hectares of land and have already attracts giant global firms such as EADS, Siemens, EDF, Thales or Danone, as well as more than 300 small and mid-size firms. The MIT Technology Review already lists Paris-Saclay as one of the eight world innovation clusters.

Merging 19 institutions

While some of its members, such as HEC and the University of Paris Orsay, are already located on or near the Paris-Saclay campus south of Paris, others will move out of Paris within the next three years. How to merge 19 autonomous entities – some of which are historical and have unique identities – is an unusual challenge in academia, business and management.

The first full academic year will start in September 2015, but the campus already hosts 300 research laboratories and 15,000 faculty and doctoral students. Together, its institutions will offer 17 doctoral programmes, eight schools from law and political science to biology and medicine, and 49 masters programmes. Academic publications authored by its 19 member institutions are already referring to Paris-Saclay as the common trademark. It already has 5,700 doctoral students (40% from abroad) and 10,000 masters students. Its faculty, post-docs and doctoral students will publish 8,000 scientific publications a year – expected to increase in the coming years.

The ambitions to build an internationally visible flagship industry cluster and university have been supported at the highest levels, from the president and ministries in charge of higher education and research. Without taking into account indirect costs and subsidies, the state has allocated more than €6 billion for buildings, innovation projects and transportation infrastructure. The university has already collected €2.5 billion in cash from the state to construct new buildings and fund research and education projects, according to my interviews with people closely involved with the project.

Opposition petered out

Although the Paris-Saclay project did not generate loud opposition from either the right or left wing political parties, there has been some resistance to the project since the early 2000s. Local authorities criticised the state for forging ahead with the project without the formal agreement and support of the mayors of the communes of the territory in and around the Saclay plateau. Student unions feared that taxpayer money allocated to the project would only benefit the elite and would hinder the modernisation of all other universities across France.

Some influential alumni from the grandes écoles, such as the Ecole Polytechnique, privately claimed that their alma mater should remain oriented toward selecting and educating top public servants and business leaders, and not become too research-focused or “academic”.

Plans by Japanese architects Sou Fujimoto for the new Learning Centre of the Ecole Polytechnique at Paris-Saclay. 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia, CC BY

Setting up an academic identity and defining an organic blueprint for the university were in no way easy. In my own research and conversations with academics, I’ve heard questions raised as to whether the Paris-Saclay project is just another white elephant, given the hybrid status of the partners and the complexity of the transitional governance merger procedure. The legal status of the University Paris-Saclay is unique in France: it is not formally a university but rather a “COMUE”, a community of universities and higher education research institutions. Under this new framework, it remains unclear how much autonomy the federated institutions will be willing to delegate.

After a slow start in 2008, the building of the new campus has accelerated since the end of 2013. Integrated programmes across the different institutions have been designed to start this autumn. Already, 80% of the masters programmes offered by the various institutions are already under the banner of the University of Paris-Saclay – which will help to make the university more visible on international rankings.

I have also heard evidence that state agencies such as the Commissariat général à l'investissement, a governmental body funding research, wanted to allocate big research grants in 2013-14 to Paris-Saclay itself, rather than to each single institution separately.

Ambiguous beginnings

The new university is headed by a team of academic administrators, some with good experience of running public agencies and laboratories. A board joins the heads of the various member institutions together and an academic council of 220 members, the majority elected by faculty, staff and students, has been granted an advisory role, functioning as an arena to generate academic consensus.

The road to the future is still paved with ambiguity. Some of the institutions favour a fully integrated model while others prefer a looser federal partnership limited to doctoral programmes and graduate education. There are still many challenges to address. There is growing pressure on the smaller grandes écoles, such as the Ecole Centrale de Paris and Supélec that have joined the project to develop their research capacity. It’s also possible “the bandwagon effect” that has given the project momentum could drop off if outside funding decreases.

Engineering, natural sciences and life sciences are at the core of the campus, and it is not strong in humanities and social sciences. As a result, it’s unclear how Paris-Saclay will handle multidisciplinary research projects such as other major clusters and campuses do. The compatibility of the two different cultural worlds – for instance between engineers of the Ecole Polytechnique and academics of the University Paris-Orsay – remains to be seen.

A major test for the new university will be its capacity to increase its attractiveness for international students and faculty in a highly competitive global higher education market.