• France's news in English
 
app_header_v3

Can France's new mega university rival the best?

AFP/The Local · 28 May 2015, 08:51

Published: 28 May 2015 08:51 GMT+02:00

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. 

(Photo: David Monniaux WikiCommons)

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. 

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.

(Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy views the site before construction work began)

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”.

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. 

Story continues below…

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.

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.

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.

Jean-Claude Thoenig is a Senior Research Fellow (em.) at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and affiliated with Dauphine Recherche en Management (Université Paris-Dauphine). A more complete version of his article was first published on the website Conversation.com.

AFP/The Local (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Labour law protests
Paris: 2,500 police on alert for new labour law protest
Police carry out bag checks at Thursday's protest. Photo: AFP

Paris is on high alert on Tuesday as the city is set to play host to the 11th demonstration against new labour reform bill, which will be voted on by the Senate on the same day.

French police lifeguards get guns for summer beach patrol
Photo: AFP

Keep an eye out for life guards with guns on beaches in France this summer.

What will change in France from July 2016
Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP

July will see some changes in France, and here's how you'll be affected.

France tells UK to hurry up and get on with EU divorce
Photo: AFP

"Don't waste any time," France tells UK. "We don't want anymore uncertainty."

French police hold ten after raids on luxury Paris stores
Photo: AFP

Have French police solved a series of armed raids of luxury boutiques?

New app aims to rid Paris pavements of dog poo
Photo: ByeBye Crottoir

No need to watch your step anymore, says this French engineer behind a new app called "Bye Bye Pavement Dog Poo"

Calls in France for English to be ditched as EU language
Photo: AFP

Some in France suggest it's time to end the dominance of English as the EU's working language, now that the UK has voted to leave the union.

Seven tips for selling your house in France
Photo: AFP

After the Brexit referendum there is already talk of British expats in France considering selling up. Here are seven tips put together by an expert.

British businesses in France told to keep calm and carry on
Brits celebrate the Queen's 90th birthday at the British embassy in Paris. Photo: UK in France/Flickr

Brits running their own businesses have been told that despite the Brexit vote, it should be "business as usual".

Paris thieves pilfer luxury watches worth €3 million
Photo: AFP

Another multi-million robbery in the chic heart of Paris.

Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
National
Mixed reaction from the French as UK votes for Brexit
National
How Brexit could now scupper that dream move to France
Brexit limbo: What happens next for Brits in France?
Gallery
Ten reasons why you should think about becoming French
Sponsored Article
Education abroad: How to find an international school
Analysis & Opinion
Brexit: Life for Brits in France 'will get more complicated'
Culture
20 English words that 'should be banished' from French
National
Best Briehaviour: A guide to French cheese etiquette
Features
And the best city in France for expats to live in is...?
Sponsored Article
Why Swiss hospitality graduates are in demand
Society
Forget bikes, Paris is set to roll out scooter rentals
National
'We fear for our safety': French police feel the strain
Lifestyle
Why Rennes (and not Paris) is the best city in France for expats to live
Sponsored Article
Avoid hidden fees when sending money overseas
National
Why are the French losing appetite for baguettes?
Lifestyle
Naturism booms in France as young eager to ditch clothes
Lifestyle
Is working life better in London or Paris?
National
Dear Americans: Please come to Paris
National
It's official (kind of): French work fewest hours in EU
And the best football fans of Euro 2016 in France are?
National
Paris has wettest spring in 100 years and it's hitting morale
Police murders remind France of complexity of terror threat
National
IN PICTURES: Labour law protests in Paris turn ugly
National
Double murder just latest jihadist attack on French police and soldiers
International
French police appear unprepared for hooligan threat at Euro 2016
Sport
An A to Z guide of what to expect in France for Euro 2016
2,730
jobs available