World's Top Universities

‘Compares the incomparable’: Academics unfazed by French slide in Shanghai Ranking

People walk past the French engineering school CentraleSupelec - part of the Paris-Saclay University - at Gif-Sur-Yvette, on the outskirts of Paris, on October 8, 2021.
People walk past the French engineering school CentraleSupelec - part of the Paris-Saclay University - at Gif-Sur-Yvette, on the outskirts of Paris, on October 8, 2021. © Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP

The top 15 universities in the Shanghai Ranking, published on Monday, are in English-speaking countries. The leading French institution, Paris-Saclay, ranks only 16th and its position has fallen since last year along with the other three French universities in the top 100.    

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The 2022 Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Ranking, which ranks the world's top 1,000 institutions annually, downgraded France’s four highest-placed universities in comparison with last year. 

France’s leading university – Paris-Saclay, which includes the prestigious AgroParis Tech and CentraleSupélec – ranks in 16th place, falling from 13th in 2021. The Paris Sciences et Lettres University has dropped two places to 40th. And La Sorbonne University, in 43rd place, has dropped eight places while Paris-Cité University now ranks 78th instead of 73rd.  

Is this drop in the rankings a sign that the standard of French universities is declining? "Not at all," says Jean-Francis Ory, dean of the faculty of economic, social and management sciences at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne. "We are not worse just because we are far from the top of this ranking.”  

The Shanghai Ranking focuses on the exact sciences such as mathematics, physics, chemistry and geosciences, but does not assess the social sciences and humanities. "From this standpoint, there are no surprises. We know right away which institutions will be highlighted," says Ory, author of a chapter from the book "Classement des Universités".

Every year, researchers at Shanghai Jiaotong University, who compile the list, evaluate universities according to six criteria, including researchers who are often cited in their disciplines; articles published in the scientific journals Nature and Science; and the number of former students or staff who have won Nobel prizes or Fields medals. The latter is the most prestigious international award for research in mathematics and is awarded every four years to researchers under 40 years of age.    

More than a third of French universities made the list

In total, 28 of France's 74 universities appear in the Shanghai Ranking, of the top 1,000 institutions. In 2016, France had 22 institutions in the ranking.  

"It is a good thing to have some French universities in this ranking because it makes them visible, and France needs to establish an international reputation,” says Ory. “However, do the 60,000 students at Paris-Saclay, for example, all benefit from the excellence of a few professors and researchers?"

Another drawback is that the ranking focuses solely on university research. It is intended to "promote scientific influence to the detriment of the quality of education", says Laura Lehmann, senior vice-president in charge of influence strategy at the National Federation of Student’s Associations. 

"This ranking says nothing about the overall state of the universities,” Ory adds. “And what's more, the vast majority of the students we teach do not do research. This ranking says nothing about the quality of working life, employability or what we teach students – what we teach them in terms of ecological and social transition, for example."

Ory goes on to say the rankings are given too much weight. "The rankings are not going to indicate whether French universities are in good health overall, or whether students are taught well at such and such university.”  

This analysis echoes the comments of Christine Censier, a headhunter for 20 years. "Attending one of these prestigious universities means that you have gone through very rigorous and selective processes, but this is not a fixed asset. You have to take a step back. Because you have candidates who have been to the best schools but who lack interpersonal skills, intellectual and cultural openness and listening skills," says Censier, who runs a recruitment firm.

Despite these limitations, the Shanghai Ranking remains a reference point for public institutions. Physicist Sylvie Retailleau, formerly head of Paris-Saclay and now minister for higher education and research, was pleased with the results. "This performance [...] illustrates France's scientific influence on the international stage," she said in a statement. During Retailleau’s presidency, Paris-Saclay climbed one place between 2020 and 2021 but went down three the following year.  

In the long term, French universities’ improvement in the ranking is the result of a new strategy begun in 2018. France has begun to merge institutions to create "experimental public institutions" (EPE). Laboratories and schools “have been grouped into EPEs so that they can be taken into account in the Shanghai ranking", explains Ory. This new policy seems to be bearing fruit, as the University of Montpellier, the University of Lille and Nantes University – three new EPEs created in 2022 – have just entered the ranking.  

But this strategy may have some drawbacks. "There are increasing inequalities between schools. New resources tend to be allocated to the higher performers while, perhaps irreversibly, the universities with the least selective funding are destined to remain so," points out a report by the Court of Audit published in October 2021.  

‘It takes money to get into these rankings’ 

Although the Court of Audit report stresses the place of "French universities in the top tier of international rankings", it also deplores the "under-funding of universities" and highlights the discrepancy between "ever-increasing student numbers" and lower public investment than in the US and UK, which consistently claim the ranking’s top spots each year. For the past 20 years, Harvard University has been ranked number one. 

"This ranking compares the incomparable. It takes money to get into these rankings. But the French university model is public, whereas the major American universities that appear in the rankings are all private. They are supported by patrons, and they benefit from much more funding than what is available in France. This system allows these universities to attract great professors and Nobel Prize winners and therefore are well ranked," Ory said.  

French higher education, which is almost free, tries to guarantee accessibility to the greatest number of people.  

This might soon be changing, however. In a statement to university presidents in January, President Emmanuel Macron announced that "we cannot continue to have a system where higher education is free for almost all students".

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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