Merger of elite Paris universities gets the go-ahead

Two of the most prestigious universities in Paris have agreed to merge by 1 January 2018. The newly elected boards of Paris-Sorbonne and Pierre and Marie Curie universities voted last week to formally commit to the plan following the re-election of pro-merger presidents at both institutions.

The new combined university will bring together Pierre and Marie Curie University or UPMC, one of France’s leading scientific and medical research-based institutions, and Paris-Sorbonne University, which has an international reputation for top quality teaching in the humanities and social sciences.

Together the new university will have 55,000 students, including doctoral students, and 6,600 academic staff.

The Paris merger plan will now be presented to an international academic panel on Tuesday 26 April set up by the French government to oversee the country’s grand Excellence Initiative.

The initiative is part of a government drive to create up to 10 mega French universities, or federations, capable of competing with the best in the world. Mergers have already taken place in major provincial centres such as Marseilles, Strasbourg, Bordeaux and Grenoble.

Biggest shake-up in 45 years

Professor Jean Chambaz, president of UPMC, also known as Paris 6, and his counterpart at Paris-Sorbonne, or Paris 4, Professor Barthélémy Jobert, both hailed the commitment to the merger from staff and students in what will be the biggest shake-up of higher education in the French capital for 45 years.

Chambaz told University World News: “One of the biggest limitations of French universities came over four decades ago when they separated along disciplinary lines.

“One had all sciences, another only the humanities, another just law and economics.

“UPMC was created from the science and medical faculties of the old Sorbonne, the University of Paris, which split in 1970.”

“Paris-Sorbonne had the arts and humanities.

“But to address the challenges of the world, like climate change, we need to build a comprehensive university containing all these disciplines.

“In some ways we are recreating the old Sorbonne, but for the 21st century,” said Chambaz.

Jobert said Paris-Sorbonne University was equally enthusiastic about creating a powerful global research and teaching public university in central Paris covering all disciplines and capable of rivalling the best universities in the world.

New model of French university

He told University World News the new institution would be more than just merging two universities.

“Success will be creating a new model of a global university in France, with independent autonomous faculties as well as a presidency who will speak for the whole university.”

“The new model will see the deans in charge of the day-to-day running of the faculties and the new president responsible for strategic matters and the policies of the university as a whole, especially raising international profile.

“It is quite a radical step for France, which has been ranked near the bottom in terms of higher education autonomy by the European University Association.

“In many ways, we are fortunate in being able to benefit from the experience of the mergers so far in Marseilles and elsewhere in France.

“But we have also looked abroad at other mergers, such as those in Manchester in the UK, Berlin and the creation of Aalto University in Finland, for inspiration.”

The French government has already established an endowment of €900 million (US$1 billion) to support the merger process, but is leaving the details of the process to the universities involved.

UPMC and Paris-Sorbonne are part of one of the university communes supported by the French government to encourage greater collaboration and cooperation between institutions.

Known as the Sorbonne University group, this includes the University of Technology of Compiègne and a school of law and economics, Panthéon-Assas University, which may consider joining the new merged university later.

No name has yet been decided for the new university created from UPMC and Paris-Sorbonne, but both presidents say the name is likely to include the word ‘Sorbonne’ as it is such a strong global brand.

As for who will be in charge of the new institution, both presidents told University World News that it could be either or neither of them.

Jobert said: “We are both equally committed to creating the new university, so that is not an issue at this stage.”

Chambaz said working parties are being set up to steer the merger process and ensure the involvement of all staff and students.

“We do not expect any redundancies and as we are both within ten minutes' walk of each other there are no plans to relocate the campus. There is no need and we like where we are in central Paris,” he said.

The French government’s ministry of higher education and research is expected to endorse the merger in a decree in January or February next year and the new university is expected to be created in January 2018.