Unsurprisingly, the first fifteen universities in the Shanghai ranking, published on Monday, are Anglo-Saxon. The first French establishment, Paris-Saclay, only appears in 16th position. He has fallen compared to 2021, just like the other three tricolors in the top 100. But this record does not mean a loss of speed.
The Shanghai ranking, which ranks the best universities in the world, was published on Monday August 15. And there is change for France: its best-placed universities have lost ground compared to 2021.
In one year, the four French establishments present in the top 100 have regressed. In the lead on the French side, the University of Paris-Saclay, which notably includes the prestigious AgroParis Tech and CentraleSupélec, was awarded 16th place, compared to 13th in 2021. In second position, the University of Paris Sciences & Lettres ( PSL) drops two ranks and reaches 40th place. La Sorbonne University, in 43rd position, fell eight places while Paris-Cité University is ranked 78th against 73rd.
Is this decline a sign of a decline in French universities? “Not at all”, answers Jean-Francis Ory, dean of the faculty of economic, social and management sciences at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne. “We are not worse because we are far from the first places in this ranking”, continues the doctor of management sciences.
The Shanghai ranking focuses on the exact sciences, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry or geosciences, without taking into account the social sciences and the humanities. “From there, there are no surprises. We know right away which establishments will be put forward”, comments Jean-Francis Ory, author of a chapter in the book “Classification of universities” ( CNRS editions, June 2022).
Each year, researchers from Shanghai Jiaotong University, who hold the list, receive universities according to six criteria: highly cited researchers in their discipline, articles published in the scientific journals Nature and Science, or the number of ex-students or staff who have won Nobel Prizes or Fields Medals. The latter is the most prestigious of the international awards for research in mathematics, awarded every four years to researchers under the age of 40.
More than a third of French universities in the ranking
In total, 28 universities among the 74 in France appear in the Shanghai ranking, which ranks the top 1,000 institutions worldwide. 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 position. However, do, for example, the 60 000 Paris-Saclay students all benefit from the excellence of a few lecturer-researchers?” asks Jean-Francis Ory.
Another downside: the ranking focuses only on university research. It is intended to “enhance scientific influence to the detriment of the quality of training”, denounces Laura Lehmann, first vice-president in charge of the influence strategy of the Federation of General Student Associations (FAGE).
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 good health of universities. And in addition, the vast majority of students we train do not do research. This ranking says nothing about the quality of life at work, on the employability or what we teach students, what we teach them in terms of ecological and social transition, for example. These are rankings that we talk about too much. We look at each other, we compare ourselves, we wonder where we are, whether we are good or not good. But it is not at all these rankings that will say if the French university is in good health or if in such and such a university we train students well” , abounds Jean-Francis Ory.
An analysis that echoes the words of Christine Censier, headhunter for 20 years. “Going through one of its prestigious universities means that you have gone through very rigorous and eliminated processes, but it is not a fixed asset. You have to take a step back. Because you have candidates who have made the best schools and which will pose a problem in terms of interpersonal skills, intellectual and cultural openness or the ability to listen”, explains the director of the recruitment firm Censier Conseil.
A showcase of French excellence
Despite these limitations, the Shanghai ranking remains a reference for public authorities. The doctor Sylvie Retailleau, formerly at the head of Paris-Saclay and now Minister of Higher Education and Research, welcomed the results. “This achievement […] illustrates France’s scientific influence internationally”, she underlined in a press release. Under the presidency of Sylvie Retailleau, Paris-Saclay climbed one place between 2020 and 2021 but lost three the following year.
In the long term, the progression of French universities in the ranking is the result of a new downgraded strategy in 2018. France has started to bring together, consolidate or even merge establishments to create “experimental public establishments” (EPE). “Laboratories, such as CNRS, INRA, INRAE and schools, have been grouped into EPEs so that they are taken into account in the Shanghai ranking”, explains Jean-Francis Ory. This new policy seems to be bearing fruit: three new EPEs created in 2022, the University of Montpellier, the University of Lille and Nantes University, have just entered the ranking.
But this strategy is a double-edged sword. “Increasingly marked inequalities are widening between institutions. The capture of new resources tends to benefit the top of the rankings while, perhaps already irreversibly, the universities least endowed with selective funding are intended to remain so”, points out a report from the Court of Auditors published in October 2021.
“What it takes to get into these rankings is money”
Although it underlines the place of “the French university in the forefront of international rankings”, the report deplores an “underfunding of universities” and underlines the gap between “student numbers which are constantly increasing” and lower public investment in the US and UK. These two rivals of France take the top places in the rankings every year. For 20 years, the prestigious Harvard has been in the lead.
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“This ranking compares the incomparable. What is needed to enter these rankings is money. However, the French university model is public, while the major American universities that appear in the ranking are all They are supported by patrons, and they benefit from private funding that is out of all proportion to what exists in France.This system allows these universities to attract great teacher-researchers and Nobel prize winners and therefore to be well ranked. “, explains Jean-Francis Ory.
Or Emmanuel Macron announced it at the beginning of January, in front of the presidents of universities: “We will not be able to remain permanently in a system where higher education has no price for almost all students”. In France, almost free higher education, although guaranteed to be accessible to the greatest number, could be shattered.