French universities slump in global rankings

The annual league table of the world’s best universities published on Wednesday does not make positive reading for France with its most prestigious institutions dropping down the rankings. It has been suggested the English language is to blame for the slump.

French universities slump in global rankings
French institutions slump in Times Higher Education global rankings for 2013/14. Photo: Simone Ramella

The 2013-14 World University Rankings, published by the Times Higher Education Magazine on Wednesday, suggests French universities are struggling to keep up with international competition, particularly from the Far East.

While the California Institute of Technology retained top spot ahead of Harvard University and the UK’s University of Oxford, France had no institutions in the top 50.

It’s highest ranked University was the Ecole Normale Superieure which was ranked 65th, down six places from its position in last year’s table.

The Ecole Polytechnic was ranked 70th, down eight places from last year and the Pierre and Marie Curie University came in at 96, down 15 places from the 2012/13 rankings.

In total France had eight entrants in the top 200 that compares unfavourably to the Netherlands which has 12 institutions in the top 200, Germany which has 10, and the UK which has 31 representatives.

Sweden has five top 200 representatives, Demark as three, Ireland has two, while Austria and Finland have one each.

While France was by no means the only European country to suffer a slump in its rankings at the expense of univdersities from Singapore, Japan and China, Phil Baty, Editor of the Times Higher Education rankings suggests Gallic universities have been hindered by their reluctance to embrace the English language.

“With the global academic community increasingly using English as the language of global scholarship, these disappointing results are likely to intensify debate about the promotion of English in French institutions,” he said.

The Top Ten best places to study in France

That debate made headlines around the world this year when France’s Higher Education Minister Geneviève Fioraso was lambasted by many, including the formidable “immortals” at the Academie, for introducing legislation that allowed more courses at public universities to be taught in English.

“French universities tend to be ranked lower down in international indicators compared to their competitors. They struggle to attract as many international students, especially Asian students and that has been an issue of concern in France, hence the move to teach more courses in English.

“I have been to a few conferences where France has been held up as an example to resistance to teaching in English. If you go to Singapore, Korea and even China they are all teaching courses in English now.  

“Even in Germany and the Netherlands there is also a high number of programmes in English, which have been pretty successful in attracting Asian students. There’s a real sense that France is behind the curve on this.

France’s move towards more courses in English was pushed through with the aim of attracting more international students, which can be a real money earner for universities at a time when resources are being cut.

“There are 4 million international students today. It’s a real lucrative market,” said Baty. “Universities in the UK and Germany have been tapping into it but less so in France.”

It is not just French universities reluctance to embrace English that has hampered their position in the rankings. Just like across Europe, cuts and reforms have also hampered their position to compete on a global scale.

Nevertheless France and in particular Paris continues to attract thousands of international students each year, so French universities must be doing something right.

“If you look at Paris it’s still a world centre full of fantastic universities and people are aware that France still has a fine tradition of scholarship.

“But there has been a lot of reform and the international market has become a lot about branding. Universities have worked hard at honing their image and worked on increasing their visibility globally. But there is a lot of confusion around French universities.

Click Here for the full table of the World University Rankings

*The Times Higher Education World University Rankings are calibrated using 13 separate performance indicators to examine a university’s strengths against all its core missions – teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. The rankings are powered by Thomson Reuters, which independently collects, analyses and verifies the data.

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