Global university rankings have been with us since Shanghai Jiao Tong University started its list of the world's best universities back in 2003. The annual rankings have struck fear into the hearts of many a university president, and transformed perceptions of higher education around the world.
Ireland is not the only European country to have been shocked to see its its institutions sliding downwards.
But while Ireland chose to maintain a high ratio of universities to population, often against expert advice, in continental Europe, the trend has been towards the consolidation of a few elite places of third level education.
Germany led the way, with its excellenzinitiative in 2005. France followed a few years later.
Spurred on by the 2008 economic crisis, then French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked Michel Rocard and Alain Juppé, former prime ministers from the centre left and centre right, to write a blueprint for the reform of higher education in France.
Their work resulted in the 2010 initiative d’excellence or Idex, later renamed Idex/I-Site.
The underlying assumption was that with 78 universities and about a dozen prestigious grandes écoles, the French system had pockets of excellence, but no critical mass for research and innovation.
The French government committed €10 billion to the goal of melting nearly 100 third level institutions down to between eight and ten “target universities.”
The task has been complicated by resistance from humanities departments, and the differing cultures of the universities and grandes écoles.
Though both are public, French universities accept all first-year applicants and are perceived to be bureaucratic and under the sway of trade unions.
Entry to the grandes écoles, on the other hand, is highly competitive. Students are given the status of civil servants with pension rights, and know they will form the country’s élite. Universities continue to resent the fact that the state typically spends up to three times as much per student in the grandes écoles.
In 2012, the French government invited Grace Neville, professor emeritus of French at University College Cork and former vice president for teaching and learning at UCC, to join the international jury of up to 20 academics who evaluate applications for Idex/I-Site funding.
Neville participates in six committees on third-level education. Two are at the ministry of education, the others at universities or research centres. She chairs a committee called Idefi, which disposes of €184 million to transform the methodology of high level education in France.
Idefi is funding, for example, a three-country, two-language programme centred in Mulhouse, near France's border with Germany. It shares a degree programme with Basel and Freibourg. Classes are taught in French and German.
“Mulhouse is positioning itself as the place to go for studies about borders and identities,” Neville explains.
"For Ireland, an analogy might be a university in Dublin linking up with Belfast and the University of Liverpool to propose a programme on borders, identities and frontiers," Neville continues. "They would teach in Irish and English. How cool would that be?"
Neville also sits on the board of the Centre de Recherche Interdisciplinaire or CRI, which works with three and four-year-olds from the disadvantaged Seine-Saint-Denis department. The city of Paris has renovated a 17th century townhouse in the fashionable Marais district for the CRI, and the Bettencourt family, which owns L’Oréal cosmetics, has also contributed significantly.
Another project which Neville is involved in examines the commonality between human and animal health. It brought together France’s leading veterinary college at Maisons Alfort and the University of Paris-Est. “Though I am not a scientist, I found it riveting,” she says. “As we now see with the coronavirus, diseases can jump from species to another.”
Neville always asks what will be the impact of a given project on social inclusion. The Paris institute of political science, known as Sciences Po, is a training ground for future ambassadors, prime ministers and presidents, and has been a trailblazer in inclusion. Its late director, Richard Descoings, decreed that over 20 per cent of first year students should be youths from the immigrant banlieues.
French officials see education as an “ascenseur social” or vector of social mobility. “As far back as the 19th century, there was this idea that education is the way forward, the way to change the world,” says Neville. “This is above party politics.”
In France, important issues such as the need for selection for university entrance, or whether institutes of higher education should charge fees, are debated on ideological rather than financial grounds, Neville says.
Grandes écoles such as the engineering school Polytechnique have been reluctant to merge with what they regard as less prestigious institutions. After an aborted merger with the University of Paris at Saclay, Polytechnique and HEC, a grande école for business studies, are now courting each other.
“If HEC and Polytechnique come together, it will be like a marriage of first cousins,” Neville says.
“The conglomerations that interest me are those which go back to the original spirit of the initiative, where grandes écoles, universities and, for example, technical colleges and lycées in disadvantaged areas all work together. These are the really interesting projects.”
The 2017 law on the autonomy of universities gave educators unprecedented leeway in recruiting international staff.
“Establishments are being told ‘look, you can be flexible, offer people packages’.” Neville says. “The French ask scientists what laboratories they need, how many post-docs they want. They ask, ‘what would it take to bring them?’ ... A university president said to me recently: ‘All competition is international now, and we have to play by international rules.’”
In another example of newfound flexibility, virtually all French universities now offer programmes in English, at graduate and undergraduate levels.
Neville says "it's an absolute waste" that Ireland looks to the English-speaking world, to Australia, Canada and the UK for examples, rather than to continental Europe.
Ireland could learn from the involvement of French regional and local governments in the planning process, Neville says. In a project east of Paris, for example, several universities were told that if they merged, the state would build four extra metro stops to link their campuses. “There is nothing remotely like that happening in Ireland,” she says.
Neville also praises the high number of women in positions of authority in French higher education, and the fact that university presidents are often in the 40s. “It’s very different from the Irish system, where presidents tend to be near the end of their careers.”
Increasing numbers of Irish students are enrolled in universities on the continent. “They get excellent teaching in gorgeous European cities,” Neville says. “Parents in Ireland are realising their kids could get a fantastic education on the continent in a highly ranked university. And it’s in English, and the fees are near zero.”
The biggest difference between France and Ireland is not about money though, Neville says. “France has a very, very strong, consistent and courageous vision of what a stunning higher education system could do for a country, beyond employment rates. There’s an existential element to it.”
Neville misses the visionary leadership of officials like the former Irish minister for education Donogh O’Malley, who in 1969 opened up universities to the entire population. “He told the parents and children of the country, ‘from here on in, universities are going to be free. If you want to go to university you can.’ It was an enormous announcement,” she says.
Education in Ireland can promote social mobility too, Neville admits. “But I wish the debate were wider and more generous that whether we fund private education or not … What is the ultimate goal?”