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John Paul Brighelli
John Paul Brighelli

Editorial. Jean-Paul Brighelli, teacher and essayist specializing in the education system, draws the conclusions from the publication of the latest Shanghai ranking.

So the French university is sinking in the Shanghai ranking? Yes, but it's not necessarily bad news, if you look closely. It would even be an incentive to turn everything upside down.


The three universities in the top 100 are Pierre-et-Marie Curie (medicine and science), Paris-Sud (science) and ENS Ulm. A little further on, ENS Lyon is progressing strongly. On the other hand, the Sorbonne disappears from the ranking – therefore beyond the 500th place. What do the top of the basket and the bottom of the ranking have in common? The desire to create centers of excellence — what the previous government would have qualified as the ugly word of elitism. In fact, only a healthy conception of elitism will save the French university tomorrow, therefore research, therefore the future, therefore France.

The principles of the Shanghai ranking are certainly highly questionable. They have been calculated to correspond to what the great American — and eventually Chinese — faculties offer. As if a company defines a position according to the qualities of the person it wishes to hire, then pretends to be ecstatic to find an applicant who perfectly matches its criteria...

Rethinking the model of our universities

French universities are not built on the appropriate model. Already, they carry the weight of the first cycle (the license level), which American universities do not manage, since the sorting is done in “college”. So let's start by dissociating the licence, this catch-all where everything that comes from the baccalaureate rushes in (in what condition!), and which is a heavy burden on the faculties' budget. The humanities, where we still shine, are very poorly evaluated in the ranking. The publications taken into account concern English-language journals. As for the number of Nobel and Fields medals teaching with us…

Speaking of budgets… That of the two (Parisian) universities present in the top 100, Paris-Sud and Pierre-et-Marie Curie, is around 450 million euros for 30.000 students, except for a few units (15.000 euros per student). Mostly public money. The No. 1 in the ranking, Harvard, has 20.000 students and has annual revenues of around $3,8 billion ($190.000 per student), 40% of which comes from the endowment, the product of the equity capital of Harvard, which is $26 billion. Another 18% of this budget comes from entrance fees paid by students — from $9000 to $34 a year for an academic year, all inclusive, costing just over $000 including accommodation, but scholarships at merit reduce, for 50% of students, the cost of the entrance ticket. The rest comes from specific donations (thus in 000 a call for donations enabled Harvard to raise 60 billion dollars).

Two preliminary conclusions. We do not play in the same court, and the model is not transposable. The rich French do not have the same propensity to give as the rich Americans. And French companies likely to finance the course of promising students, apart from the fact that they are hardly encouraged to do so by the State, invest very little in training or research – and never in fundamental research.

Selectivity must enter the university

The baccalaureate, including the professional baccalaureate, remains the key to university studies, even if more than 50% of those enrolled fail in the 1st year. The practice of drawing lots instituted by Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem, however aberrant and scandalous it may be, is still not seriously questioned. Although more than 40% of higher education (BTS, IUT, preparatory classes, Dauphine-type exemption faculties - or Medicine at bac + 1) are already selective, universities are not free to introduce the selection of their choice, either on examination of the school books (which would make it possible upstream to encourage the pupils of high school to work seriously as of the first class), or on examination. Selective Masters are systematically challenged in court, with success as long as the law does not formally authorize them. The ENS Ulm, present in the top 100 of Shanghai, or the ENS Lyon, which progresses notably towards the 200th place, are only accessible after a ruthless sorting, and should serve as models. Meanwhile, major Asian universities select with fierce Malthusianism.

As for the recruitment of exceptional teachers, paid accordingly, it is possible in large private schools of the HEC type, but excluded in universities whose overall budget has just been cut by 331 million euros. French teacher-researchers are paid according to an obsolete grid, and the best go into exile, as we know – and their publications enrich the references of foreign universities.

The Ministry of Education cannot decide to transform the Bac, the first university diploma, into a secondary school leaving certificate - for fear of protests which I very much doubt will have the magnitude of those today. caused by the Devaquet reform in 1986: the shadow of Malik Oussekine still hangs over the rue de Grenelle. In July, the Minister for Universities began negotiations with student unions which only represent themselves and eminently competent parents' organizations in order to get them to accept a form of selection - and already we hear their loud cries. Courage is not a priority, neither rue de Grenelle nor rue Descartes where the Ministry of Higher Education and Research is based. Shanghai's ranking, like our performance on the PISA indicator, should encourage those responsible to make the necessary decisions. We are still far from it: past the electoral campaigns, courage or audacity are no longer there.

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Source: ©  A “healthy elitism” to save our universities | Current values

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