French universities: Shanghai ranking “compares the incomparable”

Unsurprisingly, the first fifteen universities in the Shanghai ranking published on Monday are Anglo-Saxon. The first French establishment, Paris-Saclay, is only 16th. He has fallen in the top 100 as compared to 2021, just like the other three tricolors. But this record does not mean a loss of speed.

The Shanghai Ranking, which ranks the world’s best universities, was published on Monday 15 August. And there is change for France: its best universities have lost ground compared to 2021.

In one year, four French establishments in the top 100 have retreated. Led by the French side, the University of Paris-Saclay, which includes notably the prestigious Agroparis Tec and Central Supélec, was awarded 16th place, compared to 13th in 2021. In second place, the Paris University of Science and Lettres (PSL) dropped two ranks to reach 40th place. La Sorbonne University in 43rd place fell eight places while University of Paris-Cité was ranked 78th Against 73.

Is this decline a sign of decline in French universities? “Not at all”, responds Jean-Francis Ory, dean of the Faculty of Economic, Social and Management Sciences at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne. “We are no worse because we are far from the first place in this ranking”, continues the doctor of management sciences.

The Shanghai ranking focuses on the exact sciences, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry or geosciences, without taking into account the social sciences and humanities. “From there, there are no surprises. We know immediately which establishments will be put forward”, comments Jean-Francis Ory, author of a chapter in the book “Classification of Universities” (CNRS edition, June 2022).

Each year, researchers from Shanghai Jiaotong University, who establish the rankings, evaluate universities according to six criteria: highly cited researchers in their discipline, articles published in scientific journals Nature and Science, or the number of alumni or staff who won. The Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal. The latter is the most prestigious of the international awards for research in mathematics, awarded every four years to researchers under the age of 40.

More than a third of French universities in the ranking

Overall, 28 out of 74 universities in France appear in the Shanghai Ranking, which ranks among the top 1,000 institutions in the world. In 2016, France had 22 establishments in the ranking.

“It is a good thing to have some French universities in this ranking because it makes them visible, and what France needs to establish an international status. However, for example, 60,000 Paris-Saclay students benefit from the excellence of one . Some lecturer-researcher?” asks Jean-Francis Ory.

Another downside: The ranking focuses only on university research. It aims to “enhance scientific impact to the detriment of the quality of training”, condemns Laura Lehmann, the first vice president in charge of the impact strategy of the Federation of General Student Associations (FAGE).

“This ranking says nothing about the good health of universities. And moreover, the students we train do not do research. This ranking is based on quality of life at work, employability or what we teach students. We teach them in the context of ecological and social transition, for example. These are the rankings we talk about a lot. We look at each other, we compare ourselves. When we do, we wonder where we are, whether we are good or not. But it is not all these rankings that will say whether a French university is in good health or if such and such university we see students doing well. Let’s train”, Jean-Francis Ory profusely.

An analysis that echoes the words of Christine Sensier, headhunter for 20 years. “Its going through one of the prestigious universities means you go through very rigorous and selective processes, but it is not a sure asset. You have to take a step back. Because you have candidates who made the best schools and that will be exposed to a problem in terms of interpersonal skills, intellectual and cultural openness or ability to listen”, explains the director of the recruitment firm Senseire Conseil.

display of French excellence

Despite these limitations, the Shanghai Ranking remains a reference for public authorities. Physicist Sylvie Riteau, formerly head of Paris-Saclay and now minister of higher education and research, welcomed the results. “This achievement […] Shows the scientific influence of France on the international stage.”

In the longer term, the progress of French universities in the rankings is the result of a new strategy launched in 2018. France has begun to bring together, group or even merge establishments to form “experimental public installations” (EPEs). “Laborations such as CNRS, INRA, INRAE ​​​​and schools are grouped in the EPE to take them into account in the Shanghai ranking”, explains Jean-Francis Ory. This new policy seems to be bearing fruit: three new EPEs created in 2022, the University of Montpellier, the University of Lille and the University of Nantes, have just entered the rankings.

But this strategy is a double-edged sword. “The sharply marked inequalities between institutions are increasing. The top of the rankings benefit from capturing new resources, while perhaps already irreversibly, the least affluent universities with selective funding intend to remain so. is,” states a court report. Auditor published in October 2021.

“It takes money to get into these rankings”

While it underscores the place of “French universities at the forefront of international rankings”, the report condemns “under-funding of universities” and “student numbers that continue to grow” and low public investment in the US and UK. underlines the difference. These two rivals from France each year top the rankings. The prestigious Harvard has been a pioneer for over 20 years.

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“This ranking compares to the incomparable. These rankings require funding to enter. However, the French university model is public, whereas the major US universities that appear in the rankings are all private institutions. They are supported by patrons, and They benefit from this. Funding which is unique with what exists in France. This system allows these universities to attract great teacher-researchers and Nobel laureates and therefore be well graded”, Jean-Francis Ory telling.

However, Emmanuel Macron announced this to the presidents of universities in early January: “We will not be able to live permanently in a system where higher education is of no cost to almost all students”. In France, almost free higher education, yet its guarantee of access to the greatest numbers, may be shattered.

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