European Affairs

Academia throughout Europe was dismayed in mid-2007 when the Shanghai Jiao Tong University published its global ratings list, Academic Ranking of World Universities, and only two European universities figured among the top 20. The survey’s methodology met challenges (for example, the relatively small size of European universities was not taken into account). But the findings, which evaluate both teaching and research, seemed to confirm Europe’s poor showing in previous rankings since 2004. This time again, U.S. universities swept the field with 17 out of the 20, and a single Japanese institution made the list in twentieth place. The two Europeans were Oxford and Cambridge, both British. Continental Europe was shut out: No German university, no Italian university, no French university made it into the top 20. A once-prestigious set of institutions – universities in France and the rest of Europe – has slipped badly downhill in global performance.


This pattern of stagnation and decline in higher education is an alarm bell for European educators and policy-makers. But what kind of changes would make a difference? To find out, I sat down with one of the most outspoken and active proponents of change – Richard Descoings. He has headed for more than a decade now France’s prestigious Institute for Political Studies, better known as Sciences Po, and has tested educational policy-reforms on his own institution. He has also publicly advocated radical and sweeping changes in the entire French system of higher education and is credited with helping convince French President Nicolas Sarkozy to launch broad-based reforms at the start of his presidential term in mid-2007.

Just ahead of the Shanghai report, the government introduced legislation to give more individual autonomy to universities in the highly centralized French system. This measure, strongly urged by Descoings, fell short of some radical reformers’ demands for a system of competitive selection instead of its current guarantee of a university place for every high school graduate. But such radical change would be branded anti-democratic in France, where state-run universities are supposed to offer equal opportunities to all young people. (There are no private universities to offer competition, but France has a score of elite, specialized grandes écoles – tiny universities with highly competitive entrance policies.) In dealing with the broad system of state universities, Sarkozy presented the autonomy measure as the first step in a series of efforts to modernize and improve the overall sector. It will be an up-hill battle: calls for university reform over the years since the student revolts in 1968 have caused a great deal of public hand-wringing in France without any visible improvements in the situation. (Similar stagnation seems to prevail in neighboring European countries, which rank even lower in the Shanghai ratings.)

Why is the problem so bad in Europe? Speaking about France as an example, Descoings has a complex answer, starting with his view that any attempt to launch a “grand reform” or “revolutionary initiative” is doomed because there are so many constituencies that would react hostilely both in the education system and in political parties. He explains that the only way to succeed is to focus on change in stages, starting with the move to autonomy, then moving on to programs of aid for students so that they can cope with a new degree of flexibility in the system and then with other step-by-step changes.

His recipes for modernization are not always ones bandied about as coming from the American model – often by people who are actually familiar with the complexities and scale of the U.S. system. Descoings’s analysis starts with a European problem, specifically, a negative spiral in funding for universities that involves both less money being invested and wrong priorities in allocating the shrinking financial pie. Crucially, he says, the vicious cycle on spending is aggravated by the lack of autonomy for individual institutions to allocate the resources they are given and to develop and pursue their own strategies. Until now, French universities have been completely under centralized control exercised mainly by the education ministry. This dual failure – lack of investment and over-centralized management – have coincided with the rise of intense global competition over academic excellence, a trend that has been ignored too long in France and the rest of Europe, according to Descoings.

The global pressures are never far from Descoings’ mind, at least judging by his surroundings. His office at Sciences Po near the Latin Quarter (home of universities since the Middle Ages) recalls the good old days of the contemplative life, with windows overlooking a small, well-kept “dean’s garden.” But on the floor sits a pile of copies of his recent book, Sciences Po from La Courneuve to Shanghai – a title that might be translated very roughly as “a school that stretches from backward parts of France to fast-emerging parts of Asia.” The title reflects Descoings’s personal experience running Science Po. La Courneuve is one of the notoriously restive Paris “suburbs” (“public housing development” would be a more accurate description) that were the scenes of youth riots by the largely Muslim population there. Descoings has taken an initiative in tackling this simmering problem by launching a controversial “affirmative action” program to bring the best students from high schools in these troubled suburbs into the student body of Sciences Po. The reference to Shanghai in the title of his book is a reminder of the need for French universities to adapt to the globalization age – a theme that is one of Descoings’s obsessions.

The poor overall European showing in the world rankings stems from complex and mutually reinforcing failures, he says. “First, the lack of decent funding in continental Europe makes it very difficult to attract very good researchers and to produce sound scientific or technological research; second, the lack of autonomy [for individual universities], which means freedom to set your own strategy; third, late awareness of the intensity of the international competition.”

Elaborating on his points, Descoings notes that “awareness” of the challenge has taken hold in recent years in Europe, and universities have started trying to catch up in the globalizing race for education and research. “It’s a true scientific and economic battle,” says Descoings. “What is at stake is influence on the world.”

In Europe, change started in Britain, with a new approach to evaluating academic research. Nowadays, state funding for research is allocated on the basis of a university’s rank, with the aim of creating centers of excellence. “In Great Britain,” says Descoings, “80 percent of public funding goes to the first ten universities.” And that’s not the whole story: Parliament has also decided that full-time undergraduates with financial means of their own should pay tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year (about $5,900). In Germany, the federal and provincial governments have agreed to establish “elite universities” with competitive entry and special funding. As Descoings notes, “the approach involving elitism was not so easy to sell politically” in a country with contemporary Germany’s social values. But Britain and Germany have pressed ahead with these changes designed to enhance universities’ autonomy and competition.

In France, the universities’ situation seems to have been slipping downhill in quality since the May 1968 student revolt. Part of the outcome of that crisis was a decision to open universities to all students with high school diplomas. Enrolments have skyrocketed from 300,000 college students in 1968 to 1.5 million today. But there has been no corresponding multiplication of the budget. And it remains a fatal “third rail’’ in French politics, so no government has attempted a major reform since 1984 when even a Socialist president, François Mitterrand, could not push through radical change.

This record did not deter the new Sarkozy government in 2007 from taking an initiative promised in its electoral platform: a move giving state-run universities a large degree of autonomy and responsibility for managing themselves individually. “Until now they have been under the direct control of the central administration for every detail of their operations, so the new law is a very important step forward,” Descoings says. Now universities will be able to raise private funds and set their own budgets, buy and sell property – even pay higher salaries to good professors. This new latitude makes Descoings optimistic: with these changes, he says, Sciences Po and other French universities now “have the capacity to succeed – if we have the will – and to cope with global competition and earn a better ranking on the international lists.”

France remains handicapped, mainly by what Descoings regards as two absurdities. Much of the state’s research funding goes not to universities but to national research centers, most notably the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), a council with 26,000 employees, among them 12,000 researchers. In effect, it amputates the research function from universities. This helps explain their low ranking in world surveys, both because research is taken into account as a factor of excellence, and because it influences the general intellectual climate at a university. “Can you imagine MIT or Stanford [both in the list’s top five] without their research component?” Descoings asks.

A second French aberration lies in the fact that the very best high school graduates do not want to go to normal universities. Instead, they prefer to stay two more years in special classes called prépas that are taught in a few top high schools and offer intensive preparation for students to pass the stiff admission competition for places in the university-level elite grandes écoles – which absorb the brightest 10 percent of France’s high school graduates. Descoings asks, “Can you imagine Oxford University filling its 30 colleges without these top students?”

Any agenda for modernizing France’s universities will take time. While Descoings would be happy to see all state-funded research put into universities immediately, the same approach cannot be applied to the system of prépas for the high-performance grandes écoles. (One of them, Normale Supérieure for teacher-training, is ranked 26th in the Shanghai list, the highest position of any university in continental Europe.) “Since this system is working well, at least on its own terms, we mustn’t break it right away,” Descoings says. Instead, he advocates a longer-run approach in which, as universities are properly funded and modernized, their standards will rise gradually and eventually they will become allied with the privileged prépas and grandes écoles in a single, stronger system of higher education in France.

French universities –in contrast to their U.S. and British counterparts – have suffered for decades from weak investment made even weaker by their spending priorities. This problem is largely an outgrowth of the explosion in student numbers since May 1968, so that any growth in education budgets was absorbed by simply keeping up with the costs of the demographic explosion in the classrooms. The result was that the government ended up spending less per student in universities than in secondary education. Descoings calls this “a political choice” that seems to have soured with the impact of new technologies and globalization. He contends that “you cannot hope to build a knowledge-based society, involving highly-qualified, well-paid jobs, without investing massively in higher education. Anything else is pretending.”

In any discussion of university reform in France, it is impossible to avoid the issue of “selection” – the idea that the most efficient way to raise the quality of French universities is to restrict the number of places and make students compete for them. Descoings acknowledges that Sciences Po has a selective system for choosing qualified applicants, but he thinks this approach is impossible to apply on a large scale in France. “Proponents of selection refer to the system in U.S. universities, but they ignore the fact that there is no entry-selection for the roughly two-thirds of places in American higher education that are available at institutions with state and local funding. And, in fact, France actually sends a smaller proportion of high school graduates into higher education – just 40 percent compared to 60 percent in the United States. “The basic national system is not based on entry-selection in the United States, Germany or Britain, so people are simply wrong when they argue for shifting everything over to limiting all access to higher education,” Descoings says.

Tough selection for acceptance at Sciences Po does not bother Descoings. It is not a contradiction, in his view, to have some selective institutions that constitute an elite –like Oxford, Cambridge and the top U.S. universities. “And Sciences Po – unlike some people’s idea that says a nation can only afford a limited number of college places – is not trying to think small or avoid investment: on the contrary, we have a growth strategy,’’ he says. As director of Sciences Po, he has expanded the student body from 4,000 to nearly 7,000 – with a goal of 9,000 students by 2010. “Our standards have never been so high, our selection process never so severe as now: we are running after success,” according to Descoings. Ambitious growth of this kind has been shunned by many other elite French state-run universities; Descoings cites Polytechnique, the leading grandes écoles in engineering, and HEC, the best-known management school. The latter has not kept up with INSEAD, a privately owned business school outside Paris that commands international respect.

International outreach is a key factor for success for universities today, Descoings says, and in France that outreach must include minorities. “If a country wants to take advantage of the benefits of globalization, the largest possible number of people must participate. If minorities don’t, they are left behind, and they revolt.” In his view, one of the main aims of a university education system should “You cannot hope to build a knowledge-based society, involving high-qualified, well-paid jobs, without investing massively in higher education” be to confront students with things that are “foreign” to them so that they can be taught to be comfortable with other cultures. “In the U.S. situation, students are up against the outside world and learn to cope with it because they are in an environment of immigration, foreign students and foreign professors. In Europe, we don’t have that kind of situation, so we have to stir things up,” he explains. For that, Sciences Po has set up more than 200 academic partnership agreements with institutions in over 40 countries throughout the world.

Closer to home, Descoings has been one of a handful of educators to openly advocate American-style “affirmative action” – and he has put his cause into action at Sciences Po. In 2000, the school started taking in a handful of youngsters from underprivileged communities, typically students chosen from places like La Courneuve, the troubled Muslim and African communities in the Parisian suburbs where schools do not properly prepare students for future educational opportunities. Under Descoings, Science Po reserves roughly 400 slots for candidates who would not normally qualify for entry but who are identified as promising students on the basis of their high school records and a 45-minute interview at Sciences Po. This innovation aroused stiff opposition in some educational circles. In France, the slogan of “equality” is almost a secular religion, and it has traditionally been heretical to propose special advancement for under-qualified minority students. But this French interpretation of “equality” needs to be updated and expanded, say the advocates of change, who stress the need for a special boost for some promising young people who are deprived of access to good schools.

Descoings says: “I didn’t expect to trigger such a storm, but it turned out to be exciting – and a real battle of ideas.” The Sciences Po program is now generally recognized as a success. But France as a whole still has a long way to go to achieve effective diversity. In the grandes écoles, 80 percent of students still come from 20 high schools located in the country’s wealthiest communities. But Descoings is not alone in seeking change along these lines: President Sarkozy personally favors affirmative action, and some French business leaders back changes of this sort as part of wider efforts to reduce the de facto discrimination that many people perceive in France.

It remains to be seen whether the kinds of actions that seem to have succeeded for Descoings at Science Po can work their way into the wider fabric of the university system as a whole.

Pascal Riché is news editor of the French online news site, Rue89 (or ‘‘Street89’’ in the English-language version). It carries reportage and commentary on French and international politics and culture.



U.S. Universities Rush to Create Overseas Branches

In an era of globalization, U.S. universities are rushing to set up outposts abroad to keep up with other international competitors. Dozens have already set up such programs or have them in the works. For example, New York University has plans for expansion both in Europe and in the Gulf. In France, it will join forces with the American University of Paris and in Dubai it intends to open a liberal-arts branch campus by 2010. George Mason University, located in Northern Virginia, has already opened a campus elsewhere in the United Arab Emirates. Technically-prestigious Georgia Tech University already has degree programs in France, Singapore, Italy, South Africa and China – and plans for India.

Traditionally, top universities have built their international presence through limited ventures: study-abroad programs, research partnerships, faculty exchanges or joint degree programs offered with foreign universities. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, internationalization has moved higher up on the agenda at most universities. Part of the reason is visa problems for foreign students and faculty. Another motivation is the need to prepare students for a globalized world and help faculty members stay up to date in their disciplines thanks to direct exposure to foreign centers of excellence. Overseas programs can also help American universities raise their profile, build international relationships, attract top research talent – who in turn may attract grants and produce patents. All this outreach is part of an effort to attract more foreign tuition-paying students at a time when the number of college-age Americans is about to decline at the end of the baby boom.

As Charles Brody wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine last year, “it seems that higher education is a market ripe for globalization and that U.S. universities – by right of their acknowledged achievements, outstanding reputations, and considerable advantages in size and wealth – are predestined to take on the world in the way that Boeing, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft have done within their respective industries.” A new emphasis on world-class expertise in institutions of higher learning fuels a global search and competition for talent that favors universities with access to the most resources. But consolidating U.S. dominance in international education will not be as easy or as likely as it seems. Emerging countries – especially in Asia – increasingly are significant contributors to science and technology, and they have increasingly large and sophisticated student bodies. Already the United States no longer has the world’s highest rate of young students going on to post-secondary institutions. At first blush, it seems hard to imagine two less similar entities than a multinational oil company and a prestigious regional research university. But, as Brody wrote, “both must ultimately respond to the fundamental need to go where the resources are.” It seems clear that many will have to venture beyond their traditional boundaries to find those resources.

New York Times, February 2008; Foreign Affairs, March-April 2007


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2008.