the French MIT? not so fast…

Gare de Sceaux, May 25, 2012A news report last weekend on Nature webpage about the new science super-campus south of Paris connected with my impressions of the whole endeavour: the annual report from the Court of Auditors estimated that the 5 billion euros invested in this construct were not exactly a clever use of public [French taxpayer] money! This notion to bring a large number of [State] engineer and scientific schools from downtown Paris to the plateau of Saclay, about 25km south-west of Paris, around École Polytechnique, had some appeal, since these were and are prestigious institutions, most with highly selective entry exams, and with similar training programs, now that they have almost completely lost the specialisation that justified their parallel existences! And since a genuine university, Paris 11 Orsay, stood nearby at the bottom of the plateau. Plus, a host of startups and research branches of companies. Hence the concept of a French MIT.

However, as so often the case in Jacobin France, the move has been decided and supported by the State “top-down” rather than by the original institutions themselves. Including a big push by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. While the campus can be reached by public transportation like RER, the appeal of living and working on the campus is obviously less appealing to both students and staff than in a listed building in the centre of Paris. Especially when lodging and living infrastructures are yet to be completed. But the main issue is that the fragmentation of those schools, labs and institutes, in terms of leadership, recruiting, research, and leadership, has not been solved by the move, each entity remaining strongly attached to its identity, degree, networks, &tc., and definitely unwilling to merge into a super-university with a more efficient organisation of teaching and research. Which means the overall structure as such is close to invisible at the international level. This is the point raised by the State auditors. And perceived by the State which threatens to cut funding at this late stage!

This is not the only example within French higher educations institutions since most have been forced to merged into incomprehensible super-units under the same financial threat. Like Paris-Dauphine being now part of the PSL (Paris Sciences et Lettres) heterogeneous conglomerate. (I suspect one of the primary reasons for this push by central authorities was to create larger entities towards moving up in the international university rankings, which is absurd for many reasons, from the limited worth of such rankings, to the lag between the creation of a new entity and the appearance on an international university ranking, to the difficulty in ranking researchers from such institutions: in Paris-Dauphine, the address to put on papers is more than a line long, with half a dozen acronyms!)

2 Responses to “the French MIT? not so fast…”

  1. Dan Simpson Says:

    Who needs an MIT. You’ve already got a Université de Paris (and yes, there are 13, but that’s details). (but also, I’m reminded of a workshop somewhere where someone was really impressed that he worked at Harvard and I had to check a) where it was and b) if it still had a stats department. The latter holds for MIT).

    More seriously, I studied in Brisbane, which nominally supported three maths departments. As far as I could tell we did not work together. Brisbane did not (and does not) have enough people (or enough maths!) to have three departments. But it has three universities. You’re suggesting that the merging has been poorly implemented (rather than being a bad idea in and of itself). But I do wonder if anything short of dissolving all of those universities in all of those listed buildings would make this sort of thing work. And if that’s the case, why are those universities in those listed buildings?

    • Ha! To clarify a few points, (a) I did not call for a French MIT or the need for one, this was the way this super-campus was sold by politicians, including the then president Sarkozy; (b) I am complaining about the recurrent plague of the handling of higher education by French administration and politicians, when decisions come from the top and are faced by a highly passive resistance from the actors, which is the current case, meaning that the schools involved dragged their feet as long as possible before leaving downtown Paris and have kept their previous structure, re-meaning that another layer of administrative ganache has been added to the already queasy cake! (c) universities are in listed buildings because they were in those buildings way before they became listed! The buildings were made for the universities, can you believe it?! (I am a wee bit surprise you react strongly on that level.)

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