Highered in France: one country, two systems

Posted on 11/11/2013


Recently, the president of the French Association of University Presidents (CPU) published an article in “Le Monde” where it stated that “Everyone knows, and students realize that when they enter into a school, in “Grandes Ecoles”, teaching is not very good.” As you may guess, this sparked lots of reactions.

This is another of these debates that will certainly look sterile, useless or difficult to understand for people outside of France but which is showing the poor state of the higher education system in France.

French higher education has been for a very long time made of two different types of higher education institutions: the universities, all public and functioning like many other universities in the world, accepting lots of students, in any disciplines you may imagine, and selecting them along the way, through bachelors, masters and PhDs…

And then you have the “Grandes Ecoles” (High schools/Colleges could be the closest translation I guess). Grandes Ecoles are basically stand-alone institutions, not reporting nor attached to any university, and recruiting after 2 years of preparatory schools, using a competitive exam. They all have some form of numerus clausus, which is another big difference with the universities. Grandes Ecoles cover mainly engineering and business degrees and are the ones well known all over the world for their excellence. Without entering into the historical details, Grandes Ecoles were created about 200 years ago for the oldest ones, to cover for “applied” degrees, which universities considered as not noble or too “professional” for them at that time (and still recently for some…). Among the Grandes Ecoles, there are many different governance structures: some are public (most of the Engineering schools), some have a not-for-profit association status or belong to Chambers of Commerce (most of the Business schools would be under these 2 categories), are under the tutelage of a Ministry (Industry and/or Commerce and/or Higher education) and are accredited by the State. Public ones would get public subsidies and most of them charge rather low fees, and not-for-profit ones would not get any public subsidies and rely on high tuition fees and contracts with companies for their budget.

Why is this system which has been working rather well for the past 100+ years a source of recurrent conflicts? Basically, Grandes Ecoles are very successful. Compared to their size, they are overrepresented in all rankings, for example in the recent THE Alma Mater Index ranking institutions by the number of degrees they have awarded to the “top dogs” of Fortune Global 500 companies (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/alma-mater-index-global-executives-2013/2007032.article). In the top 100 in the world, you will find 6 “Grandes Ecoles” and one university related institution (Institute for Political Sciences, which is in fact not even a university…) and no French university…In Business, no French universities in the FT Global MBA ranking (but 2 business schools), 18 Grandes Ecoles accredited by AACSB, no university, and so on…

Also, because the non-public ones charge fees, they are also often accused of being elitist, which while it may be true, is not worse than any other high quality institutions elsewhere in the world where some categories would be over represented.

The successive French governments (whatever their political orientation) have always been bothered by the successful Grandes Ecoles, that they control less, and think that merging them with universities would be a way to inject quality in the deficient public university system. Thus, Grandes Ecoles are regularly under attack by universities and by ministers. Regularly, there are threats of having them integrated to a one big public only university system. While it won’t indeed be possible for the fully private ones unless they are “nationalized” (since a law passed in 1875, anyone in France is free to create to private higher education institution in France), France is losing precious times in these debates and meanwhile, the international competition moves forward.

On paper, merging schools with universities looks interesting. Grandes Ecoles have qualities, skills, networks and competencies that universities do not have and universities have size and access to public resources that most schools cannot access to. But what made Grandes Ecoles so successful compared to universities? First, the fact that they are small and relatively autonomous, giving them agility and innovativeness. Then, that for most of them, funding had to come from customers (students and/or companies), forcing them to remain lean, focused, reactive to changes in the environment and on overall customer-oriented in the services and support provided to students, alumni and companies. What has been a strength could now become more and more of a handicap. Grandes Ecoles lack of resources in the competition to recruit world-class academics. Internationally, they also cannot develop large scales projects and as a result, none of them has open full-fledged large branch campuses contrary to the UK or Australian universities for example. They also cannot afford to maintain a wide network of international offices or dedicated agents to recruit. But then, it is again compensated by innovative approaches, such as for example the recent venture of Centrale Paris (one of the top engineering schools) in India (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/tech-mahindra-forays-into-engineering-education-with–cole-centrale-paris/1171825/).

Instead of being merged with universities, schools are asking for more autonomy, which would allow them to raise money from investors, banks or on the financial market for example, or to develop equity joint-ventures internationally. But autonomy is against the unified approach that all governments expect in higher education. So the debate goes on and on and on… And meanwhile, French higher education, and particularly the very important areas of engineering and business, remains a dwarf on the international scene, while many mutually beneficial initiatives could be developed with the new higher education hubs all over the world.



For those of you interested by more insights on this, please find below the link to an article (in French sorry) written by Patrick Fauconnier, one of the French journalists knowing very well higher education in France. It published in Le Nouvel Observateur on Oct.31st, 2013. http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/education/20131030.OBS3222/universites-grandes-ecoles-la-guerre-est-rallumee.html