FRANCE: City universities 'booming', says evaluation

The French higher education landscape is changing as universities assume greater autonomy, according to the first regional analysis of all France's universities, published this month by the Agence d'évaluation de la recherche et de l'enseignement supérieur, Aeres. Institutions are forging new alliances with research organisations and businesses, with those based in and around the biggest cities thriving best.

Launching the 600-page report, Jean-François Dhainaut (pictured), the agency's president, said the study had taken four years to produce, with 10,000 evaluations carried out by 4,500 French and international experts. They started in 2007, the year Aeres was itself created.

The report gives profiles of each region, including strengths and weaknesses and the extent of collaboration with higher education institutions and partnerships with business and industry.

Each regional section then presents evaluations of all its universities, together with information including student and staff numbers, undergraduate and postgraduate courses and research specialisations, student success rates, governance, international relations and finances. Research activities are analysed jointly with the relevant masters or doctoral courses.

Dhainaut emphasised that the study did not constitute a ranking of French universities, pointing out that the methodology had evolved and that the time lag over the four annual evaluations would penalise those institutions studied in 2007 compared with those studied more recently.

Rather, the report represented a "snapshot of the quality of higher education and research in France", he said.

The timing of the evaluations coincided with the unfolding of the Universities' Freedoms and Responsibilities law introduced after Nicolas Sarkozy became president in 2007. This reform increases universities' autonomy, transferring to them what was previously state control of such responsibilities as budgets, hiring staff and deciding their remuneration, ownership of university buildings, research strategies, and partnerships with other institutions, companies or industries. So far 73 universities, nearly 90% of the country's total, have attained autonomous status.

The Aeres study revealed that effective collaboration was developing between different establishments, said Dhainaut, who gave as examples partnerships between universities and other higher education institutions in Lyon, Toulouse and Nancy; and links between universities and research bodies in Grenoble, Montpellier, Caen and Orléans, and teaching hospitals in the Ile-de-France (the region including Paris), Lille, Nantes and Montpellier.

He also highlighted the "boom in the big cities" generated by recent calls for bids arising from the government's multi-billion euro programme Opération Campus - which aims to create about a dozen internationally high-ranking, competititive institutions - and from the national loan which has increased funding for higher education and research.

Dominated by the Paris metropolitan areas, the Ile-de-France region alone represents 40% of the national research establishment, with 7,000 academics and researchers working in units classified as category 'A+' ('excellent').

With the formation of research and higher education clusters, known as PRES (pôles de recherche et d'enseignement supérieur), the Ile-de-France and other dominant regions such as Rhône-Alpes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Strasbourg, Toulouse and Bordeaux had achieved 'critical mass' which, for example, enabled them to obtain large-scale infrastructure and equipment necessary to develop scientific and technological research, Dhainaut said.

Disparities had grown between these metropolises and other regions where the number of academics and researchers in a PRES numbered fewer than 500. Collaboration was vital if these smaller PRES were also to attain critical mass, he said.

He cited successful examples including the joint project Innovation Campus Ouest between the two PRES of Bretagne and Pays de Loire, which between them had raised to 750 the number of academics and researchers in A+ units; and the University of Savoie which, through collaboration with Grenoble, had developed a position in particle physics and theoretical physics.

The report, Aeres 2010: Analyses régionales des évaluations réalisées entre 2007 et 2010, is available here

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