The top 15 universities in the Shanghai rankings, released on Monday, are in English-speaking countries. The top French institution, Paris-Saclay, ranks only 16th and its position has fallen since last year with the other three French universities in the top 100.
The 2022 Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Ranking, which annually ranks the world’s top 1,000 institutions, has downgraded the top four ranked French universities compared to last year.
France’s top university – Paris-Saclay, which includes the prestigious AgroParis Tech and CentraleSupélec – ranks 16th, dropping from 13th in 2021. Université Paris Sciences et Lettres fell two places to 40th. And La Sorbonne University, in 43rd place, lost eight places while Paris-Cité University now ranks 78th instead of 73rd.
Is this drop in rankings a sign that the level of French universities is falling? “Not at all”, replies Jean-Francis Ory, dean of the faculty of economics, social sciences and management at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne. “We are not worse simply because we are far from the top of this ranking.”
The Shanghai ranking focuses on exact sciences such as mathematics, physics, chemistry and geosciences, but does not assess social sciences and humanities. “From this point of view, there are no surprises. We know immediately which institutions will be put forward”, explains Ory, author of a chapter of the book “Ranking of Universities“.
Each year, the researchers at Shanghai Jiaotong University, who compile the list, evaluate the universities according to six criteria, including: highly cited researchers in their discipline; 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 prize for research in mathematics and is awarded every four years to researchers under the age of 40.
More than a third of French universities make the ranking
In total, 28 of the 74 French universities appear in the Shanghai Ranking, among the 1,000 best institutions. In 2016, France had 22 establishments in the ranking.
“It’s a good thing to have a few French universities in this ranking because it makes them visible, and France needs to establish an international reputation, says Ory. of the excellence of a few professors and researchers?
Another downside is that the ranking only focuses on academic research. It is intended to “promote scientific influence to the detriment of the quality of education”, specifies Laura Lehmann, senior vice-president in charge of influence strategy at the National Federation of Student Associations.
The Shanghai ranking, this mock podium.
❌ Valuing scientific influence at the expense of the quality of training should not be a source of pride.
❌ Let’s not seek to rank our universities but to improve them for the first concerned: the students. https://t.co/tJ4obUe4Fn
— Laura Lehmann (@LauraL_FAGE) August 15, 2022
“This ranking says nothing about the general state of universities,” adds Ory. “And on top of that, the vast majority of students we teach don’t do research. This ranking says nothing about quality of work life, employability, or what we teach students – what they’re taught in in terms of ecological and social transition, for example. We talk too much about these rankings. We look at each other, we compare ourselves, we wonder where we are, if we are good or not good. But these rankings will not say at all whether French universities are in good health or whether students are well trained in such and such a university.
This analysis echoes the words of Christine Censier, a headhunter for 20 years. “To attend one of these prestigious universities means that you have gone through very rigorous and selective processes, but this is not an asset. You have to take a step back. Because you have applicants who have been to the best schools but who lack interpersonal skills, intellectual and cultural openness and the ability to listen,” explains Censier, who runs a recruitment firm.
Despite these limitations, the Shanghai Ranking remains a benchmark for public institutions. Physicist Sylvie Retailleau, former director of Paris-Saclay and now Minister of Higher Education and Research, welcomed the results. “This representation […] illustrates France’s scientific influence on the international scene,” she said in a statement. Under the presidency of Retailleau, Paris-Saclay gained one place between 2020 and 2021 but lost three the following year.
Ultimately, the improvement in the ranking of French universities is the result of a new strategy initiated in 2018. France has started to merge establishments to create “experimental public establishments” (EPE). Laboratories and schools “have been grouped into EPE in order to be taken into account in the Shanghai ranking”, explains Ory. This new policy seems to be bearing fruit since the University of Montpellier, the University of Lille and the University of Nantes – three new EPEs created in 2022 – have just entered the ranking.
But this strategy can have some drawbacks. “There are growing inequalities between schools. New resources tend to be allocated to the best performers while, perhaps irreversibly, the universities with the least selective funding are destined to remain so”, underlines a report from the Court of Auditors published in October 2021.
“It takes money to get into these rankings”
If the report of the Court of Auditors underlines the place of “French universities in the forefront of international rankings”, it also deplores the “underfunding of universities” and underlines the discrepancy between “increasing numbers of students and declining public investment in the US and UK. France’s two main rivals claim the top spots in the standings every year. For the past 20 years, Harvard University has been ranked number one.
“This ranking compares the incomparable. It takes money to enter these rankings. But the French university model is public, while the major American universities that appear in the rankings are all private. They are supported by patrons, and they benefit from much more funding above what is available in France.This system allows these universities to attract great professors and Nobel laureates and therefore to be well ranked,” said Ory.
French higher education, almost free, tries to guarantee accessibility to as many people as possible.
However, that may soon change. 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.