FRANCE: French do well in French world rankings

It should have been an occasion to cheer up the French university community following France's poor showing in the Shanghai Jiao Tong and Times Higher Education-QS international rankings: the second Professional Ranking of World Universities survey by the grande école Mines Paris Tech placed five French institutions in its top 20, including two in the first 10. But commentators have criticised the findings which are based on just one criterion.

The survey assesses establishments uniquely on how many of their former graduates hold chief executive posts or their equivalents in the leading 500 international companies, as classified by the Fortune Global 500 of Fortune magazine. The companies are headed by Wal-Mart, Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell and BP.

The survey report explains: "This criterion is meant to be the equivalent, as far as companies are concerned, of the criterion of 'alumni having been awarded the Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal' used in the classification established by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, the former students concerned being of a similar number.

"However, unlike the Shanghai classification, this criterion points to the performance of the training courses provided by higher education institutions rather than performance achieved in research by those institutions."

The three leading higher education establishments in the Mines ranking, out of 350 cited, are Tokyo University, Harvard University and Stanford University. Oxford University is eighth, equal with Kyoto, while Cambridge at 35th tied with 25 others. France's business school HEC takes seventh place, and ENA, the elite school of administration, the 10th.

But critics complain that a single test for classifying institutions is insufficient, and that the survey measures the quality of higher education several decades ago, rather than now. The report acknowledges that relying on a single criterion "may appear very limiting".

It defends its methodology by commenting that "it is the only verifiable and reproducible characteristic that we have wanted for this classification. Everyone can in fact carry out this survey again with the same criterion and the result will not change".

Such an approach is "perfectly justified" to evaluate the institutions' pasts, "as for the Nobel laureates [in the Jiao Tong rankings]... Our idea is to reproduce this classification every year and to analyse trends over time. We shall certainly continue to study the past, but in a dynamic manner", says the Mines survey report.

Responding to the charge that by emphasising the 'business' dimension, the rankings fail to focus on innovation and company creation, the school admits: "This constitutes a very significant criticism (to our mind)... . [But] we cannot unfortunately see which criteria should be used for assessing these major factors."

Apart from the Mines classification, French higher education institutions fare poorly in international rankings. In the latest Jiao Tong classification France had just three establishments in the top 100, and only two in THE-QS.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has made higher education and research a government priority and aims to have two French universities in the world's top 20, and 10 in the first 100 by 2012.

Although French institutions have done much better in the Mines survey than in other international rankings, their performance this year is not as good as that in the school's first classification published last year. Five were then ranked among the top 10, including the Ecole des Mines in the 10th slot. This year the school has placed itself at number 20.