A Gap Between French Universities?

by Stephanie Braudeau

A gap between the quality of programmes offered at French universities is growing larger suggests a regional analysis released a couple of weeks ago by the Agence d’évaluation de la recherche et de l’enseignement supérieur, AERES, a French statutorily independent agency. The 600 page report is a thorough four-year work involving 4,500 French and international experts and carrying out 10,000 evaluations. The agency evaluated two main areas: Bachelor programmes and research activities. Each region gathers a detailed profile of the universities it includes, with their strengths and weaknesses.

For the Bachelor programmes, four grades are available, A+, A, B and C. A+ is for excellent programmes, A means programmes are of very good quality, B that the programmes are justified though do not meet the criteria requirements and D represents programmes that do not meet requirements and have too many weaknesses.

As for the research institutes, four indicators are drawn by subject areas: production; attractivity, socio-cultural and economic impact; strategy and institution life and project appreciation. Each indicator is ranked between A+ to C, but it also leads to a global grade, A+ indicating an international visibility, A being a high quality institute, B rated as a good institute that needs to improve its quality in several areas and C, an institute needing to substantially improve its quality level to meet the requirements.

What is the aim of this survey? In a context of a changing environment in France, with the recent emergence of campus d’excellence, elite campuses are targeted to become the showcase of France. This operation gathered 66 applicant campuses, among them 12 campus have been selected in autumn 2008 and 9 voted as innovating and promising. Each received a substantial subvention from the French government between €20 and €850 million.

As Jean-François Dhaineaut, AERES President, described it, it is not a ranking exercise, but rather a snapshot of the French Higher Education environment. It is advised to look at a region in particular to understand its characteristics and not compare universities from various regions.

How to read the results?

In France, a region (académie) gathers several universities/institutions. For example, Paris region (including Créteil and Versailles) has 20 institutions, Lille 6 and Clermont only 2.

Without a surprise, several regions distance themselves from the majority: Lyon region achieved the best results, with 62.5% of its Bachelor degrees ranked with A or A+, then both Lille and Paris region (including its neighbouring Versailles and Creteil authorities) with 54% ranked A or A+. Regions scoring the lowest are Dijon-Besançon (6%), Orléans (12.5%) and the French overseas departments and territories (15%).

This table represents the percentage of Bachelor degrees in universities rated A or A+ (excellent or very good quality).

If we look at individual universities results, Université Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris 6) topped the evaluation with 100% of Bachelor degrees rated A or A+ (this is also the third French institution heading the 2010 QS World University Rankings® www.topuniversities.com ), followed by Université Lyon 1 (81%), Université Paris-Sud 11 (79%), Université Bordeaux 4 and Université Bordeaux 2 both respectively scored 75% and 71%. Individual results have obviously a strong influence on the regional evaluation. Dhaineaut, explained its surprise regarding the output of the Bachelor programme exercise, as he was expecting smaller universities to top the evaluation, instead of those taught in the major Paris and Lyon regions.

Surprisingly in this exercise, Université Toulouse 1 did not receive any A or A+ for its Bachelor degrees (with five other universities), indicating this university does not offer excellent of very good quality Bachelor programmes although, in our 2010 QS World University Rankings Toulouse 1 has been ranked between the 501 and 550 positions, a noteworthy position among the best French university ranked. Consequently, we are stressing the importance of a methodology, as it can lead to significant gaps.

The report also reveals that Paris region represents 40% of domestic research with 7000 academics and researchers working in institutes rated A or A+ (excellent and good quality programmes).

Several limits

This evaluation has been conducted in three different waves, each one affected by slight modifications in the methodology, such as going from a global to a multi-criteria evaluation. Additionally, the group of universities assessed per region is not comprehensive, only major institutions being part of it, which does not always reflect the potential excellent quality of smaller institutions.

The report Aeres 2010: Analyses régionales des évaluations réalisées entre 2007 et 2010 is available here.

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