France crafts ‘new university’

Edu. Minister Pécresse talks at Harvard

Valérie Pécresse, the French Minister for Higher Education and Research, visited Harvard University Monday to give a public lecture and question-and-answer session on “The New French University: An Opportunity to Cooperate with American Academics?” Pécresse has held prior government positions as regional councillor and as a member of the French National Assembly. On Tuesday, the Minister discussed with The Tech and other media the “new French university” and what the concept means for French and American academics.

The Tech: You discussed the concept of the new French university at your lecture. What is the concept, and how does it affect the current style of higher education in France?

Minister Valérie Pécresse: The new French university allows for more autonomy, which means that such universities have more freedom in recruiting faculty and developing their respective research strategies. These “new” universities are given the power to build projects from the bottom-up. This is in contrast with current national universities, which are given budgets to implement specific projects with little flexibility. Before, the state gave a university money and determined what projects needed to be done. The given money could not be used for other purposes. Now universities are starting to be able to use money more freely. The French university system is highly centralized, and we want to give universities more freedom. There are currently 85 universities and 225 “higher colleges” in France, and they do not have a strong international presence. As a result, we are grouping nearby colleges in order to build federal universities. For example, the University of Bordeaux will be made of schools in science, medicine, humanities, law, and management. The university will also feature collegiums of engineering science and political science. In this way, we aim to create 15–20 pools of research and higher education, which include four to five federal universities in and around Paris. We want to create brand-name universities to promote growth and attract talent and focus on bridging the academic and economic worlds. Ultimately, we want to redefine the landscape of French universities.

TT: How will the new French universities allow for greater cooperation with American academics?

VP: We are hoping that changes in the French university system will build new and stronger partnerships with American universities. France has 800 cooperations with U.S. universities, and we consider America as our primary scientific partner. Each day, we produce 20 corporate publications that involve the collaboration of U.S. and French scholars. France is working to extend relations with American academics by creating dual degrees — joint diplomas between an American and a French university. For example, this has been done with a programs between Columbia University and two French universities — the Pantheon-Sorbonne University (University of Paris 1) and the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris. This creates a “marriage” of students, which allows for a stronger connection than exchange programs would. Another step we are taking is creating international “research mixed units” with the United States. Today we visited an International Unit on Multiscale Material Science for Energy and the Environment at MIT, which involves an alliance between a French and an American lab. The two labs publish and own intellectual property together.