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€ 22b for education in France

That’s the kind of money the country needs to seriously compete with the US and UK

education Updated: Nov 09, 2011 14:29 IST
Vandana Ramnani

About 1221 new campuses are being built, stress is being laid on pushing forward to the forefront of pathbreaking technologies... French minister of higher education and research Laurent Wauquiez elaborates on the changes.

Why was there a need to reform the French higher education system?
These are the biggest reforms that we’ve ever undertaken. Till date we had a system based on duality between universities on one side and grandes ecoles on the other. The second point was that each university in France was specialised. You had a university for history and human sciences, law, sciences, mathematics, medicine and everyone was working in his own field and in his own discipline. That was the second weak point. The third weak point was that there was no connection between the world of research and higher education and the world of enterprise/companies. These two worlds were not connected with regard to funds and how to train the French youth. The fourth point was that there were universities that were too small to be able to sustain real research. We’ve changed everything.

How much investment has gone in to ensure that the reforms are a success?
We put in a lot of money on the table to ensure that research and higher education grew faster. We put in €22billion as investment to ensure that our reform process is a success. Earlier, when a university wanted to introduce a new course, they had to come to the ministry, they had no autonomy. We’ve given them teeth now. We have given them a budget and we expect targets from them. Everything has now changed. Presidents of universities are now managers with their budgets and projects - all are trying to find their own way and find what is appropriate for them. That’s the first change.

The second change is that universities are now coming together. We now have the capacity to compete with the biggest universities in this world. Under the Initiative d’excellence (Idex) scheme, most Parisian universities and many grandes ecoles have united to create world class universities. We now have 25 poles de recherche et d’enseignement superieur (PRES - research and higher education clusters) and grand ecoles and research institutes all working together.

The third change has been that universities have opened up to the world of economy and business. Now you have partnerships, foundations, you have bank networks, local communities, you have support for business creation, and companies are funding universities … which is a huge change.

The fourth change is that we are investing in the process of building 1221 new campuses to replace ones that had no learning centres and no sport facilities. We are positioning France so that it can be on the forefront of pathbreaking technologies like nuclear physics and electronics. We are also investing in synthetic biology, for example, in Bordeaux. We are late but we are going to be in the frontline. The French universities, the French research is back.

How open are you to inviting international students to study in France?
France has to be open. It would be crazy at the time of globalisation to close doors. I don’t want students coming in just like that. I want students to come in through partnerships because then we can have real cooperation between foreign universities and French universities. I also want French students to go abroad. I want exchange to be on both sides. I want a France with open doors and open windows.

Are you planning to give working rights to students who graduate from French universities? What is France doing to overtake the UK in terms of foreign student intake?
Well, to overcome the UK is always a target. We decided to have a policy to regulate immigration in France. Every country tries to have a regulation to ensure that we welcome people in fields where we are sure that they can find jobs and where we have a lack of people who are well-trained. If it is a field where we have too many people, where we have unemployment, it is not possible. This is the only difference.

Is language going to be a barrier for international students?
Now you have a lot of programmes in English in France. Now you have complete programmes in English. We’ve tried to change all that although we do try to promote Francophonie. Also, it is not very expensive to study in France. My preoccupation has always been to think about the middle class. Also, I don’t want to make France the US. That’s not interesting. We have to find the way to make higher education and research represent what France is and how it is able to deal with the competition of the 21st century.

How will you convince Indian students who prefer the UK, or the US to come and study in France?
The US is so old fashioned. Everybody is going to the US. What is the difference? If you want to have something different, come to France. Let’s think Europe, let’s think something more than what others are doing. Everybody has an American diploma. What’s the point? Let’s be different. We’re planning a new agency which is going to be in charge of international partnerships as French universities are now going to be autonomous and will have to fund their own partnerships. This agency is called Campus France and it is going to promote French universities in other countries.

If you want to have something different, come to France. Let’s think Europe, let’s think something more than what others are doing. Everybody has an American diploma, what’s the point? Let’s be different

Laurent Wauquiez, French minister of higher education and research