Why France is building a mega-university at Paris-Saclay to rival Silicon Valley

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, writes Jean-Claude Thoenig.

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. All of them were previously autonomous and most of them are prestigious in their own right. They include the university of Paris-Orsay, the École Polytechnique, the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan, the HEC business school, laboratories of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and of the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique.

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. How to merge 19 autonomous entities – some of which are historical and have unique identities – is an unusual challenge in academia, business and management.

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. 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”.

Plans by Japanese architects Sou Fujimoto for the new Learning Centre of the Ecole Polytechnique at Paris-Saclay. 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia, CC BY

Setting up an academic identity and defining an organic blueprint for the university were in no way easy. In my own research and conversations with academics, I’ve heard questions raised as to whether the Paris-Saclay project is just another white elephant, given the hybrid status of the partners and the complexity of the transitional governance merger procedure. 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. Under this new framework, it remains unclear how much autonomy the federated institutions will be willing to delegate.

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.

I have also heard evidence that state agencies such as the Commissariat général à l'investissement, a governmental body funding research, wanted to allocate big research grants in 2013-14 to Paris-Saclay itself, rather than to each single institution separately.

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.

The road to the future is still paved with ambiguity. Some of the institutions favour a fully integrated model while others prefer a looser federal partnership limited to doctoral programmes and graduate education. There are still many challenges to address. There is growing pressure on the smaller grandes écoles, such as the Ecole Centrale de Paris and Supélec that have joined the project to develop their research capacity. It’s also possible “the bandwagon effect” that has given the project momentum could drop off if outside funding decreases.

Engineering, natural sciences and life sciences are at the core of the campus, and it is not strong in humanities and social sciences. As a result, it’s unclear how Paris-Saclay will handle multidisciplinary research projects such as other major clusters and campuses do. The compatibility of the two different cultural worlds – for instance between engineers of the Ecole Polytechnique and academics of the University Paris-Orsay – remains to be seen.

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.

The Conversation

Jean-Claude Thoenig is Researcher emeritus, Dauphine Recherche en Management, University Paris-Dauphine and Director of Research (emeritus) at National Centre for Scientific Research.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why French school curriculum and timetable reforms forced teachers onto the streets


French teachers went on strike on May 19 to voice their disapproval of two major reforms that have been proposed by Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the French education minister (pictured above), writes Camille Terrier.

The two reforms are very different: one centres on changes to the history and language curriculum and the other on schools' autonomy to manage the organisation of teaching. Yet both have sparked criticisms from teachers, unions and French intellectuals.

Reforming secondary education has emerged as a recent priority in France. The most recent results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which rank countries around the world based on tests of 15-year-olds and released last December, highlight increasing inequalities in achievement between low and high achievers in France.

More disturbing is the fact that, among OECD countries, France is one of the countries where a pupil’s social background is one of the strongest predictors of his or her subsequent achievement.

To solve these structural difficulties, in March 2015 Vallaud-Belkacem announced two reforms of lower secondary education, known in France as collège, which takes children from Grade 6 to 9, between 11 and 15-years-old (the numbers of grades descend in France as children progress through school: Grade 6 is called sixieme but Grade 7 is cinquième and Grade 8 is quatrième).

Curriculum changes under scrutiny

The first controversial reform proposed by the French ministry of education is a rewrite of the secondary school curriculum in most subjects that would come into force in September 2016. This project was presented by the Conseil supérieur des programmes, which oversees the French curriculum, on April 13.

A wave of criticism followed, particularly regarding the history curriculum. The reform plans to distinguish between some of the compulsory parts of the curriculum and the content that would be freely chosen by teachers. Some historians and right-wing intellectuals strongly condemned the fact that in Grade 7, the module “Islam: emergence, growth, society and cultures” would become compulsory, while the module on Christianity during the Middle Ages would be discretionary.

Though this fact is correct, most opponents to the reform omit to say that a compulsory module on the emergence of Christianity is taught in Grade 6, as is the module on the emergence of Judaism. Discussions on the first curriculum draft are still ongoing, and teachers have until June 12 to give their opinion.

More autonomy for headteachers

Despite the strong debate generated by the curriculum reforms, it was not the main reason for teachers taking to the streets. The reason given by the teachers' unions for the strike referred to a broader reform affecting the organisation of collèges.

A key element of this part of the reform would consist of giving more autonomy to schools to allocate teaching time. From September 2016, 20% of teaching time would be managed locally by headteachers, who could decide how to allocate time between working in small groups, cross-subject teaching or individualised tutoring sessions.

Unions have waved the flag at giving more power to headteachers to impose their decisions on teachers. At the moment, headteachers decide teachers' timetables – what time each teacher teaches, and in which room – but they have no freedom to affect how the teaching hours are allocated between different activities, which is decided by the ministry of education.

The second key element of the reform is the creation of eight interdisciplinary teaching modules, in Grades 7 to 9. For three hours a week, these modules would aim to teach abstract notions in a more concrete way – for instance a module on sustainable development would cover physics, biology and technology. Such reforms echo those that are ongoing in Finland to give students more time for interdisciplinary learning.

But for teachers, most of who are highly attached to the subject they teach, introducing such modules would be synonymous with fewer hours of fundamental teaching. With students free to choose their own modules from Grade 7 onwards, unions have raised fears of a growing competition between teachers to attract students.

Language changes under fire

The most polemic part of these interdisciplinary modules is related to language education. Latin and Greek languages, judged as too elitist, would be replaced by an interdisciplinary module on the “language and cultures of antiquity” that students could complement with an optional language course.

Most importantly, the reform plans to significantly restrict the possibility of a student learning two languages from Grade 6. Under the current system, a minority of gifted pupils take advantage of this option, although the majority wait until Grade 8 to learn a second language.

Under the new proposals, students will take a second language in Grade 7 in an effort to reduce inequalities between pupils. Most criticisms have been expressed by German teachers fearing that further suppression of bilingual classes in Grade 6 would reduce the pool of students wishing to learn Goethe’s language.

The French education system has long had a reputation for being unreformable – mainly because teachers’ unions negotiate from a strong position to protect teachers' interests. In 2014 for instance, unions managed to postpone a reform aimed at spreading teaching hours more equally over the week in primary schools for a year.

In his defence of the current reforms, French prime minister Manuel Valls emphasised the reforms were aimed at reducing inequality. If students’ unions were powerful enough to balance the lobbying of teachers’ unions, students’ interest might be more considered in reforms.

The Conversation

Camille Terrier is Visiting PhD student at London School of Economics and Political Science.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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French mayor attacked for counting schoolchildren with 'Muslim names'

MenardA French mayor backed by the far-right Front National has been accused of racism after using the names of schoolchildren in his town to decide how many were Muslim.

Under France’s strict secularism laws, the government does not keep statistics on people’s religion or ethnicity.

But Robert Ménard, mayor of Béziers in the south of the country, said his administration had used lists of pupils’ names to decide how many were Muslim, and claimed the figure came to 64.6%.

“Sorry to say this, but the mayor has, class by class, the names of the children,” he said on France 2 television on Tuesday night.

“I know I don’t have the right to do it. Sorry to say it, but the first names tell us their religion. To say otherwise is to deny the evidence,” he added.

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Report warns of growing inequality in French schools

Asia sweeps top spots in global education survey (via AFP)

Asian nations cemented their top positions in an eagerly awaited report on global education on Tuesday, as their students continued to outshine Western counterparts in maths, science and reading. Shanghai again ranked first in maths, science and reading…

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Paris is the best city to be a student

PARIS has come out top as the best city in the world to be a student, beating London into second place.

The QS Best Student Cities list puts the French capital number one, with low tuition fees being a major reason, but also because studying there was so much cheaper than London.

Paris was also recognised for the employability of its graduates and the good quality of life students can enjoy in the city, ensuring it is once again the world's best student city.

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Schools will have to display 'secular charter' poster

CharterFRENCH schools will have to display a 'secular charter' from today (9 September) stressing the principles of the education system.

Education minister Vincent Peillon will require all public schools to display la charte de la laïcité, which explains how the state and religion are separate entities and he said that the poster will instil the “values of the Republic” in the country’s young people.

There are 15 statements featured on the poster, for example, one says that secularism ensures freedom of thought, and that people can believe or not believe, with individuals entitled to the free expression of their beliefs.

And the poster also says that school children can not use religious or political affiliations to challenge teachers when teaching certain parts of the curriculum.

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French back to school dates and calendar you can print

Calendrier scolaireWITH the final week of the summer holidays almost upon us, the Calendrier Scolaire points out the different term times for the coming academic year amongst the different educational zones in France.

There are three distinct geographical zones when it comes to the dates of when classes break up, to try and ensure holiday periods are spread out across France.

The 2013 - 2014 academic year starts on Tuesday 3 September for all school children, with the Toussaint and Christmas holidays being taken by all three zones at the same time, although holidays next year will be staggered.

And if you want there is a useful calendar you can print off showing the school holiday periods over the coming academic year.

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Lessons in morale laïque set to be introduced

THE French education minister, Vincent Peillon, has outlined plans to provide children with education in 'secular morality' or morale laïque.

In a report the minister said that children will have an hour a week in the subject at primaire and collège level, and 18 hours a year at lycée.

The new classes are set to be in place by September 2015 are designed to promote the Republican values of France and ensure there is a clear line between the state and religion.

However, opponents have said see the measures as decisive and question the effectiveness of the lessons, especially as they will not be strictly timetabled and are expected to be incorporated into existing classes.

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Axe hangs over village schools in the Dordogne

School-dordogneTHE bean counters have moved in to this quiet corner of the Dordogne and an axe hangs over one of three primary schools.

Parents and local officials protested over the weekend at the decision to close one of the classes at either Mazeyrolles, Saint-Cernin-de-l'Herm or Prats-du-Périgord.

A decision will be made next month, but it means one teacher will be out of a job and longer car journeys or bus trips for the young students.

In the past parents have raised money to help provide laptops and tablet PCs, as well as help improve school buildings and canteen facilities.

And while it all comes down to a fall in the number of children set to be in the area over the coming years, I couldn't fail to notice a strange juxtaposition.

In the last couple of days I've been helping a local person with their internet connection that actually comes via a satellite dish on the roof of his house.

He can not receive ADSL broadband via the telephone line, and so has installed a satellite system, while other homes around his also sprouted similar pieces of kit.

But not everyone can afford such systems and so many homes in the area have no broadband service and so people can not pick up the best online prices, download local authority forms and children are denied the chance to use the web for homework.

This puts a break on future choices and obviously makes it difficult for businesses to establish themselves in the area and for families to move to the countryside.

So if the area is to lose a school class, and a teacher, it would be good to see some of the money saved diverted into improving internet access - somehow I doubt it will happen.

And so as the grip of the bean counters tighten, it seem that the words on the posters held up by children saying 'a closed school means a dead village' may yet come true.

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Parents want teacher reinstated over 'suicide' essay

THE parents association at a school where a teacher was suspended for asking pupils to imagine they were about to commit suicide has asked for him to be reinstated.

The teacher was suspended on Monday after some parents complained that children aged between 13 and 14 were told to imagine reasons for wanting to end their lives and describe their self-disgust.

But on Tuesday the parents association said that it wanted to see the teacher allowed back into class to continue teaching French to students at Montmoreau-Saint-Cybard secondary school in the Charente region.

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