FRANCE: International rankings – must do better

France’s higher education and research community greets the publication of successive international academic rankings with a mixture of gloom, indignation and soul-searching, as it sees its universities and elite schools languishing in the middle and lower places – if they appear at all.

France is placed sixth worldwide in the 2007 Jiao Tong academic rankings, with 22 establishments in the top 500.

Only four French universities make the leading 100: Paris-6, Pierre and Marie-Curie, is sixth in European universities and 39th in the world (up six places from 2006), in front of Paris-11, Orsay, ranked 52; the École Normale Supérieure Paris (83); and Strasbourg-1, Louis-Pasteur (99).

Two new universities appear in the Shanghai rankings, Lille-1 and Rennes-1, both in the last 100 places. In the THES rankings only two French establishments are in the top 100, three fewer than last year.

“Every year the inquiry by Jiao Tong of Shanghai relegates almost the whole French university and research system to the depths of a classification which, despite its imperfections, asserts itself as a benchmark throughout the world,” according to an editorial in Le Figaro, which summed up the general French view.

“For France, the international rankings follow one another, all similar and sending back to us most of the time an image that is hardly glowing. The sixth economic power in the world is judged not very innovative, nor very reactive, nor very buoyant when compared with others.”

The government recognises that the stakes are high if France is to keep up with growing internationalisation and competition. Higher education and research minister Valérie Pécresse announced that one of her policy aims was to have two French universities in the top 20 world rankings, and 10 in the first 100, by 2012 (see Higher education escapes budget cuts, 21 October 2007).

Academics and commentators have suggested several reasons for France’s mediocre performance. One is that Jiao Tong takes size of establishments into consideration, which militates against France’s dispersed higher education system: Paris has 17 universities, Bordeaux four, and Lille, Montpellier, Nancy and Strasbourg have three each.

In response, a trend is starting in which universities will merge to make larger institutions. The first super-university is due to open in January 2009 when Strasbourg’s three universities become one.

Another reason is that the rankings do not take into account dedicated research organisations, such as the National Science Research Centre or the medical research institute Inserm. They carry out much of their work in mixed units within universities, which are not credited with the results.

The École des Mines, one of France’s traditional, prestigious grandes écoles has come up with its own professional rankings with criteria based on the number of former students leading one of the top 500 international companies as identified by Fortune magazine, headed by Exxon Mobil, WalMart Stores and Royal Dutch Shell.

Its top 10 establishments, out of 338 cited, include five French grandes écoles, among them École des Mines itself in 10th place. Harvard, Tokyo and Stanford rank highest while Shanghai’s Jiao Tong is in a cluster tied at number 89.

More on the École des Mines site