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Three Questions for Peter Todd on Higher Education

Three Questions for Peter Todd on Higher Education
 Institut Montaigne
Institut Montaigne

Peter Todd, former Dean of Desautels at McGill University and Dean of HEC Paris, shares his analysis on higher education in France. 

The Paris-Saclay project, which aims to gather the leading research institutions in France to make them more competitive, is behind schedule. What is France missing today to complete this project and to become a global leader in higher education?

Since President Macron’s visit to the Plateau de Saclay in October 2017, it seems to me that the project is accelerating. With the presidential decision to develop two parallel and complementary projects - the Paris-Saclay University project on the one hand and the grouping of New Uni engineering schools, on the other - clear progress has been made. The Paris-Saclay University project has been renewed, the deadlines extended, allowing more time to secure the IDEX label. As for the New Uni group, it is taking shape quickly.

Both developments are good news for France’s higher education system. The stakes are higher than international rankings, which cannot be the goal in itself. This is a question of France’s academic influence, and the strength of its research on an international scale. France shines thanks to its culture and its economy: it should be able to align its higher education system with these traits. Grouping or merging universities to achieve scale effects will not be enough. Most world-class universities have around 15,000 to 25,000 students, and some even fewer. Caltech, for example, only has a few thousand. Similarly, it seems to me that an efficient grouping of institutions displaying different characteristics and cultures cannot be forced. At McGill, a university that I know quite well, there are 11 different faculties, yet they have developed over time, over 150 years. 

To enable France to reach its full potential, I believe more so in the strength of projects that are jointly developed by institutions sharing a common culture, and which have complementary academic strenghts. In this spirit, the Board of Directors of HEC recently gave me a mandate to lead an alliance project with the New Uni group of engineering schools, composed of Polytechnique, ENSAE, Telecom ParisTech, Telecom SudParis, and ENSTA ParisTech. We will work to develop common research programs as well as a selection of joint-programs in areas such as Artificial Intelligence, entrepreneurship, FinTech and sustainable development, while at the same time working on close synergies with our ecosystems dedicated to entrepreneurship. 

The goal here is to develop a new model for the French higher education system. We aspire to have a multidisciplinary, human-scale structure, equipped with an agile governance, focused on excellence to compete with leading global institutions in the business and technological innovation fields.

The reform of the higher education system, which is contested by many students, is one of the government’s main projects. Which reforms do you think should be a priority?

Working on the selection process, which goes hand in hand with each institutions’ reputation and academic excellence, is, in my opinion, a priority. There can be no excellence without evaluation and selection. I want to specify that there is, in my view, no value associated to the term ‘selection’. One student may not be better than another in an absolute sense, but the profiles of some students are more adapted to certain programs or courses. The goal of selection is therefore to ensure quality, fit and student success and satisfaction.

This is the main challenge for universities today: increased selectivity, and not just of students! Indeed, in addition to the selection of students, a selection capacity is now also required for professors. To be able to compete with other world-class institutions, France has to become attractive even more to both students and teachers from around the world. This is not to question the quality of current students and professors, but to continue to raise the bar. It is about improving the student per professor ratio. It is far too high in France relative to our elite international competition. If the country’s universities were more selective, we would be closer to international norms. 

I believe there is also another imperative: the government needs to give more autonomy to its educational institutions to avoid systematically replicating model in which each university serves the same objectives. We can observe a similar problem in Quebec, where everything tends to be standardized. Allowing individual schools to pursue unique missions will better serve students.  

Another issue must also be tackled quickly: funding. French universities are still too dependent on state funds. Without denying the importance of public funding or questioning it, we must push for more diverse funding sources. At Harvard, a renowned private university, about 15% of the funding comes from the state: the state’s resources should not be cast aside but should nonetheless be complemented! Tuition fees for instance or fundraising, which is a non-negligible source of funding, is still not used enough in France. To develop these new sources, the private sector and alumni networks need to be better engaged. 

As former Dean of Desautels at McGill University, what can France learn from the Canadian higher education system? Or from other international examples? 

France needs to accept that there are different types of institutions in order to respond to different types of needs and different types of students. In Canada, there are several layers of institutions, the missions and ambitions of which are clearly defined. Indeed, we have several excellent major universities, side-by-side with other institutions with recognized strengths in certain fields, and colleges training for more technical jobs. Each one has different social and vocational training missions for distinct audiences and needs. These different options are necessary! And Canada is still very far off from the US or the UK, where these alternatives are even more clearly defined. 

Germany is also an interesting model. The higher education system looks a lot like the French one (especially in terms of fees), but it concerns a smaller number of students. Germany choses to concentrate its resources and accepts the idea that not everyone needs a university education. Many students naturally flourish in more technical programs favoring apprenticeship. These high-level professionals are not trained in universities, but they develop rich and rewarding careers in highly technical domains. 

France could also draw inspiration from the UK, Australia or New Zealand, especially on the principle of evaluating educational institutions and their performance. In the UK, the evaluation system implemented allows each project to be measured by the financial means engaged. When the objectives are reached and the relevance of the models has been proved by an evaluation, the institutions’ resources are increased. It is a form of remuneration based on performance - also practiced in HEC - but which remains a taboo subject.

We nonetheless have many reasons to be optimistic about developments and the influence of France’s higher education system! There is currently a momentum in France, particularly favorable to reforms, which is creating a great opportunity to revive its higher education system. It is the ideal moment for innovation and experimentation. It is time to create new structures that will shine by their success. We see it every day at HEC:  international applications have increased by over 50% compared to the previous year! There is undeniably something happening in France right now, and we must seize the opportunity that it represents.

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