"Healthy elitism" to save our universities

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Jean-Paul Brighelli
Jean-Paul Brighelli

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

The French university sinks into the ranking of Shanghai? Yes, but that's not necessarily bad news, look closely. It would even be an incentive to upset everything.


The three universities present in the top 100 are Pierre-et-Marie Curie (medicine and sciences), Paris-Sud (sciences) and ENS Ulm. A little further, the ENS Lyon is progressing strongly. On the other hand, the Sorbonne disappears from the rankings - beyond 500th place. What is the common point between the top of the basket and the bottom of the standings? The desire to build poles of excellence - what the previous government would have called the ugly word of elitism. In fact, only a healthy conception of elitism will save the French university tomorrow, so research, so the future, so France.

The principles of the Shanghai ranking are certainly very questionable. They have been calculated to match what is offered by the major American faculties - and eventually Chinese. As if a company defined a position according to the qualities of the person it wishes to hire, and then pretended to be delighted to find an applicant perfectly matching its criteria ...

Rethinking the model of our universities

French universities are not built on the right model. Already, they carry the weight of the first cycle (the license level), which the American universities do not manage, since the sorting takes place in "college". So let's start by dissociating the license, this catch-all where rushes all that arrives from the vat (in what state!), And which strike heavily the budget of the faculties. The human sciences, 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 at home ...

About the budget ... That of the two universities (Parisian) present in the top 100, Paris-South and Pierre-and-Marie Curie, is of the order of 450 million euros for 30,000 students, with a few units (15,000 euros per student). For the most part, public money. No. 1 in the ranking, Harvard, has 20,000 students and has annual revenues of about $ 3.8 billion ($ 190,000 per student), of which 40% comes from the endowment, the product of the equity of Harvard, which amounts to 26 billion dollars. 18% of this budget comes from admission fees paid by students - from $ 9,000 to $ 34,000 a year for an all-inclusive university year, costing just over $ 50,000, including accommodation, but merit, for 60% of students, the cost of the admission ticket. The rest comes from specific donations (so in 2013 a call for donations had allowed Harvard to raise $ 6.5 billion).

Two preliminary conclusions. We do not play in the same yard, and the model is not transposable. The rich French do not have the same propensity to donate as the rich Americans. And French companies likely to finance the course of promising students, in addition to being hardly encouraged by the state, invest little in training or research - and never in basic research.

Selectivity must enter the university

The baccalaureate, including the professional baccalaureate, remains the sesame of university studies, even if more than 50% of the enrolled ones fail in 1st year. The practice of the draw by Mrs Vallaud-Belkacem, absurd and outrageous though it is, is still not seriously questioned. Although more than 40% of the higher education courses (BTS, IUT, preparatory classes, Dauphine-type exemption schools or Bac + 1 medicine) are already selective, the universities are not free to introduce the selection of their choice, whether on examination of school booklets (which would allow upstream high school students to work seriously from 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. ENS Ulm, which is in the top 100 in Shanghai, or ENS Lyon, which is progressing significantly to 200th place, can only be accessed after a merciless selection, and should serve as models. Meanwhile, major Asian universities are selecting 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 global budget has just been cut by 331 million euros. French teachers-researchers are paid according to an obsolete grid, and the best exiles, as we know - and their publications enrich the references of foreign facs.

The Ministry of Education is unable to make the decision to transform the baccalaureate, first university degree, into a high school diploma - for fear of protests which I doubt they have today the magnitude of those caused by the Devaquet reform in 1986: the shadow of Malik Oussekine still hangs over the rue de Grenelle. The Minister of Universities began negotiations in July with student unions representing only themselves and organizations of parents of eminently competent students to get them to accept some form of selection - and already their shouting from the wild. Courage is not a priority, neither rue de Grenelle nor rue Descartes where the Ministry of Higher Education and Research sits. The Shanghai ranking, as well as our performance on the PISA indicator, should prompt decision-makers to make the necessary decisions. We are still a long way from it: past electoral campaigns, courage and daring are no longer at the rendezvous.

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Source: ©  "Healthy elitism" to save our universities | Current values

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