Parisian phoenix

The Sor­bonne reborn after five decades

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - jack.grove@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Few uni­ver­si­ties loom as large in the pub­lic’s imag­i­na­tion as “the Sor­bonne” – known more pro­saically as the Univer­sity of Paris.

Thanks to Vic­tor Hugo, who ro­man­ti­cised its rev­o­lu­tion­ary stu­dents in Les Misérables, and the real-life un­der­grad­u­ates whose vi­o­lent protests in 1968 cap­tured the world’s at­ten­tion, mil­lions of peo­ple have dwelt upon the lives of the “Sor­bon­nards”, el­e­vat­ing them as icons of heroic idealism and Parisian glam­our over the years.

That con­tin­u­ing hold on the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion is some­what re­mark­able given that the Sor­bonne ceased to ex­ist of­fi­cially as a univer­sity in 1970. In re­sponse to the stu­dent un­rest two years be­fore, it was bro­ken up into 13 uni­ver­si­ties, a struc­ture that would bet­ter al­low the rapid ex­pan­sion of stu­dent num­bers that fol­lowed.

De­spite the rel­a­tive suc­cess of many of th­ese au­ton­o­mous Paris uni­ver­si­ties over the years, iden­tity and name recog­ni­tion has been a prob­lem. Most, un­til re­cently, were known largely by their num­bers – such as Paris IV, Paris VII – mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for in­ter­na­tional aca­demics to tell them apart, while some of the names later adopted to pro­vide a more dis­tinc­tive brand proved rather un­wieldy and dif­fi­cult to pro­nounce – Pierre and Marie Curie Univer­sity, for ex­am­ple, which was later short­ened to UPMC. None com­mands the name recog­ni­tion of “the Sor­bonne” de­spite its dis­band­ment al­most 50 years ago – a fac­tor that has con­trib­uted, many be­lieve, to France’s dis­ap­point­ing show­ing in world univer­sity rank­ings over the years.

That, how­ever, might soon change when two of Paris’ most suc­cess­ful uni­ver­si­ties fully em­brace the fa­mous moniker. From Jan­uary, UPMC, France’s largest med­i­cal and sci­ence univer­sity, will merge with Paris-Sor­bonne Univer­sity – Paris IV – which spe­cialises in the hu­man­i­ties, the arts and lan­guages – to form Sor­bonne Univer­sity, a recre­ation of the in­sti­tu­tion that ex­isted from the 13th cen­tury un­til 1970.

Some might won­der if the merger is strictly nec­es­sary given the rel­a­tive suc­cess of both in­sti­tu­tions: UPMC is ranked joint 123rd in the lat­est Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion World Univer­sity Rank­ings, while Paris IV scrapes into the top 200 at 196th. Oth­ers might ques­tion if com­bin­ing two in­sti­tu­tions of 35,000 and 24,000 stu­dents re­spec­tively will cre­ate an over­sized univer­sity that will prove dif­fi­cult to man­age.

But Jean Cham­baz, pres­i­dent of UPMC, in­sists that the merger is re­quired for strong aca­demic rea­sons, not just the clear ben­e­fits of reac­quir­ing the Sor­bonne brand.

“If we want to ad­dress the world’s grand chal­lenges, we need to join re­searchers from the sciences and medicine to those work­ing in the hu­man­i­ties,” Pro­fes­sor Cham­baz told THE in Paris. “If we want our stu­dents to be­come more cre­ative, then they also need to work across dis­ci­plines.”

Un­like some of the coali­tions of uni­ver­si­ties, grandes écoles and re­search in­sti­tu­tions en­cour­aged by the Idex ex­cel­lence ini­tia­tive, which of­fers ad­di­tional fund­ing for more col­lab­o­ra­tion, this will be a full merger, ex­plained Pro­fes­sor Cham­baz, whose im­pres­sive mod­ernist cam­pus be­side the Seine has just un­der­gone a E1.7 bil­lion (£1.5 bil­lion) re­fur­bish­ment.

“This is the first merger in Paris as we re­alised that we needed to re­build a com­pre­hen­sive univer­sity,” he ex­plained. “We are al­ready world-class in sci­ence and medicine, while Paris-Sor­bonne is one of the best in hu­man­i­ties, so we now need an in­sti­tu­tion that mixes and en­com­passes all dis­ci­plines.”

The prom­ise of ad­di­tional fund­ing un­der the Idex was not a major driv­ing force be­hind the scheme, he in­sisted. The group of Sor­bonne uni­ver­si­ties may have ac­quired an

E800 mil­lion en­dow­ment from Idex, but it can spend only the in­ter­est yielded from this sum – about E27 mil­lion a year, he said. “It is good to have th­ese in­cen­tives but we have a bud­get of al­most

E1 bil­lion, so it is the but­ter in the spinach,” he said.

A big­ger driver for the merger, which was first dis­cussed about 10 years ago, is to ex­pand on the cur­ricu­lum re­forms that have seen UPMC of­fer many more dual hon­ours un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree pro­grammes in re­cent years, said Pro­fes­sor Cham­baz.

This ini­tia­tive has pro­vided a richer stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ence, and has also helped to cut the univer­sity’s dropout rates to be­low 40 per cent, he ex­plained.

That compares favourably with the wider sec­tor, where just over a third of sci­ence stu­dents (36 per cent) com­plete within three years and only 50 per cent do so within four years, of­fi­cial fig­ures show.

France’s new higher ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, Frédérique Vi­dal, re­cently an­nounced a E450 mil­lion project to roll out sim­i­lar cur­ricu­lum re­forms across other uni­ver­si­ties, which would al­low stu­dents to switch from their major to their mi­nor sub­ject, rather than drop­ping out.

“This is not rev­o­lu­tion­ary out­side France, but of­fer­ing th­ese types of de­grees is quite dif­fer­ent for a French univer­sity,” said Pro­fes­sor Cham­baz.

“Many col­leagues ques­tioned whether this was a good idea or not, but stu­dents have voted with their feet and about 35 per cent now en­ter a course where they do a double major or a major and mi­nor de­gree,” he said.

While Pro­fes­sor Cham­baz be­lieves that greater aca­demic se­lec­tion be­fore en­ter­ing univer­sity would do much to re­duce France’s stag­ger­ingly high dropout rates, he wel­comed Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal’s ef­forts to tackle this prob­lem.

“She has said this fail­ure rate is not ac­cept­able and, if she suc­ceeds, she will have solved one of the worst prob­lems in French higher ed­u­ca­tion,” he said.

De­spite his en­thu­si­asm for the new Sor­bonne Univer­sity and its wider ben­e­fits, iron­i­cally it is Pro­fes­sor Cham­baz who could lose out from the merger; with just one pres­i­dent’s po­si­tion avail­able, he might not get the nod in the elec­tions tak­ing place in mid-Novem­ber, al­though he would con­tinue to man­age op­er­a­tions at the Jussieu cam­pus if not cho­sen.

“We’re pleased to have the Sor­bonne im­age, which is iconic for Paris,” he said, adding that “re­build­ing the com­pre­hen­sive univer­sity will not just help our in­sti­tu­tions, but help us serve so­ci­ety”.

Whether the Sor­bonne could even­tu­ally com­pete with the likes of Oxford and Har­vard re­mains to be seen, but aca­demics around the world can ex­pect to hear a lot more from France’s most fa­mous higher ed­u­ca­tion brand in the next few years.

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