Three and half years ago Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, one of Europe’s most prestigious public policy research and teaching institutions, was in turmoil following the sudden death of its director, Richard Descoings, and the publication of a scathing report by the state auditor into its financial management.
Since 2013, under the leadership of a new permanent director, Frédéric Mion, the institution has emerged from the crisis with a series of initiatives aimed at reconfirming its position as a world-class university specialising in social sciences.
These initiatives include greater interaction between research and teaching; increased focus on the professional world and the job market; expansion into a new campus in central Paris; commitment to internationalisation and cultural diversity; and reasserting the institute’s role in civic and social responsibility, with nearly a third of students on scholarships and including action in favour of gender equality and support for refugees.
The institute was founded in 1872 to reform the training of French leaders, and graduates typically find employment in the higher echelons of public administration, research or business. They include French and foreign heads of state and government, numerous politicians, leaders of international organisations, heads of banks and other national and international companies.
Sciences Po is currently ranked fourth in the QS world university rankings for politics and international studies, behind Harvard University, the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics and Political Science or LSE, but ahead of the University of Cambridge.
Sciences Po has more freedom to set its own rules than other French higher education institutions, Mion explains to University World News.
“We are autonomous, very independent from the state and run by a foundation, of which I am executive director. We are free to determine its own rules for admission, the content of the degrees we give out. We can choose students by criteria we set, and we can decide fees.
"These things make us more flexible than universities and most of the grandes écoles. Sciences Po has grown through this autonomy. We used to have 3,000 to 4,000 students in the 1990s; now we have 13,000 students,” says Mion.
About 45% of Sciences Po students are from abroad, in line with the institute’s commitment to cultural diversity.
The 2022 strategic plan
Under the 2022 strategic plan, “our overarching ambition is to reconfirm our position as a world-class university specialising in the social sciences. We want to break away from the traditional model of French grandes écoles which is less easy to understand from an international perspective,” says Mion.
So Sciences Po is recruiting more teachers and research staff, and integrating more research with teaching. “We need to keep investing in the scientific community, recruit more professors, rethink our teaching programme and identify needs over the whole undergraduate studies [programme],” says Mion.
Sciences Po also needed to expand its presence in central Paris, and recently acquired the Hôtel de l’Artillerie, a “very spacious set of buildings that has belonged to the Ministry of Defence for the past 200 years, which will give us a campus in the heart of Paris very similar to schools like the LSE, Columbia, New York”, says Mion.
A second part of the Sciences Po strategy is to develop its “connections with the professional world and the job market in general”, says Mion. “How can we increase our interaction with the various professions we teach our students?”
The first step was to reorganise the masters programmes into professional schools, which started in 2004 with the creation of the School of Journalism. Now there are also schools of Management and Innovation, Law, International Affairs, Public Affairs, and Urban Studies, as well as the Doctoral School offering research-based masters and PhD programmes in law, economics, history, political science and sociology.
“The creation of these schools is an opportunity for us to rethink how to prepare our students for a certain number of jobs field by field; and each one creates greater interaction between staff and students, and the professions. Each has a strategic board composed of professionals in the field,” says Mion.
There are also plans to further develop executive training for professionals in mid-career.
Sciences Po is a member of the Université Sorbonne Paris Cité, or USPC, a consortium of 14 higher education and research institutions in Paris and the surrounding region that between them specialise in arts and humanities, literature and languages, social sciences and public policy, life sciences and medicine, physical sciences and engineering, and information and communications technologies.
USPC “means we have the opportunity to cooperate more closely in subjects and disciplines we don’t teach at Sciences Po”, says Mion.
“It is essential to be able to resort to some of those other disciplines; to engage in the sustainable development or climate change fields, for example, it makes sense to have specialists in hard sciences. If you teach in cultural areas, such as politics in the Middle East, it helps to have contact with specialists in this area,” Mion says.
“And the same with public health – politics and health. It is a wonderful opportunity to bring together people who have been working in separate institutions and had no natural impetus to work together.”
The third goal in the 2022 plan is to “reassert our role in civic and social responsibility, covering several different aspects. We have in mind our commitment to diversity,” says Mion.
“We have great cultural diversity, with 45% of students holding passports other than French. We also have significant social diversity; about 30% of students receive some sort of financial help.”
Sciences Po has a long international tradition and close connections with prestigious institutions including LSE, University College London or UCL, and the universities of Columbia, California-Berkeley or UC Berkeley, British Columbia or UBC, Sydney and Hong Kong, forming the structure of its extensive student exchange system.
“In the past three years, about 40% of our professors have come from abroad – even those who are French often got their PhD outside France, so we are very international in terms of recruitment,” says Mion.
“Our international strategy has been pretty consistent for 20 years regarding students at undergraduate and graduate levels. Nearly half are students from abroad. We have made it compulsory for our students to spend their third year of undergraduate study abroad. We have partnerships with 400 universities. With about 20 we have engaged in more structured research and degrees at undergraduate level.”
International collaboration includes joint degrees with universities such as Columbia, UBC, UC Berkeley, Singapore, UCL, Berlin and Freiberg.
All Sciences Po students spend a period studying abroad, and students from 150 other nationalities come to study in Paris, or one of the institute’s six other campuses located throughout France. Each provincial institute has its own specialisations and offers the Sciences Po bachelor degree, while only Paris offers masters and doctoral courses in addition to the general curriculum programme and the dual bachelor degree with UCL.
The provincial campuses and their specialisations are:
- Dijon, in Bourgogne, established in 2001, specialises in the European – Central and Eastern Europe bachelor degree course, and in the dual bachelor degree with UCL.
- Le Havre, Normandy, opened in 2007, caters for students following the Europe-Asia undergraduate programme and dual bachelor degrees with Columbia, Hong Kong and Keio universities, National University of Singapore, UBC and UC Berkeley.
- Menton, on the French Riviera, opened in 2005 and offers the Middle East-Mediterranean undergraduate programme and dual bachelor degrees with Columbia, Hong Kong, National University of Singapore, UBC, UCL and UC Berkeley.
- Nancy, Lorraine, opened in 2000, for students enrolled in the European Franco-German undergraduate programme and the dual bachelor degrees with Freie Universität Berlin and UCL.
- Poitiers, Poitou-Charentes region, opened in 2010, for students on the Europe-Latin America undergraduate programme and the dual bachelor degree with UCL.
- Reims, Champagne, established in 2010, offers the Europe-North America and the Europe-Africa undergraduate programmes, and the dual bachelor degrees with Columbia University, the University of Hong Kong, National University of Singapore, UBC and UC Berkeley.
As well as promoting international cultural diversity, Sciences Po is committed to expanding social diversity, says Mion
In 2001 Mion’s predecessor, Richard Descoings, created pioneering partnerships with seven upper secondary schools in disadvantaged areas in and around Paris and in the Nancy area in northeast France. This gave bright pupils the chance of a place at Sciences Po without having to sit the competitive entrance exam, along with financial and extra educational support.
Today, under its Priority Education Conventions scheme, Sciences Po has conventions with 106 schools throughout France, including its overseas departments. About 30% of students receive scholarships and extra funding above government provision, financed by means-testing fees paid by better-off students.
“The average tuition fee is about €4,500 [US$4,800] at undergraduate level and €5,000 at graduate level, which makes us less expensive than most of the business schools but more expensive than the universities,” says Mion.
Among its civic-related activities, Sciences Po took part in the United Nations’ 'HeForShe' gender equality campaign, and carried out an 18-month long programme, 'Make it Work', in the run-up to the December 2015 Climate Change conference in Paris.
Last spring it launched a support programme for refugees, says Mion. “We decided to provide language courses for those not fluent in either French or English to a level they could resume studies in those languages, and we have continued the scheme with 20 refugees who will be taking classes in topics we teach. They have received refugee status or are in the process of doing so, and are aged between 21 and 36. They were all studying or had done so before they came.”
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