Can France Create Its Own MIT?

Plan calls for institution to have greater autonomy on salaries and staffing than is the norm in the country.

June 28, 2018

Five grandes écoles (leading French universities) should be formally merged to form a Parisian science and technology university emulating the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the French government has been told.

Jean-Lou Chameau, the former president of the California Institute of Technology who was tasked with advising ministers on the amalgamation, has called for the new university to be given significantly greater autonomy over issues such as staffing and salaries than traditional French higher education institutions, in order for it to be globally competitive.

The amalgamation of the five grandes écoles -- École Polytechnique, ENSTA ParisTech, Telecom ParisTech, Telecom Sud Paris and ENSAE ParisTech -- should be complete by spring 2019.

The institutions are already relocating to a 1,300-acre site on the southwestern edge of the French capital, but last year they opted against joining larger providers in a “mega-university” called the University of Paris-Saclay.

Chameau told a master class hosted by Times Higher Education in Paris that the union of the grandes écoles -- currently known only as “NewUni” -- should be more comprehensive than the previous practice of grouping institutions together in ComUE (communautés d’universités et établissements).

“The faculty will be ‘one faculty,’ it is not five faculties … A soon as possible [we should] create a single entity,” said Chameau, who is also a former president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.

Chameau argued that NewUni, as a specialist science and technology institution, could be a “slightly different animal” and complement Paris-Saclay, which will comprise 14 institutions.

He argued that the grandes écoles’ existing areas of research strength should be augmented by a greater focus on areas such as biomedical engineering. Other key features of the institution should be a strong emphasis on the importance of the social sciences and humanities, close links with business, and a focus on the development of “soft” skills and entrepreneurship, including at Ph.D. level.

“We need to have Ph.D. graduates who not only will do great things in academia or research, but also can do great things in the business world,” Chameau said.

France has suffered a brain drain of researchers in recent years, often blamed on the fact that salaries tend to be significantly lower than in competitor countries, so Chameau said he had recommended that NewUni have more autonomy on this issue -- and on other staffing matters -- to ensure that it can retain and attract academic talent.

“Salaries are not the only thing, however, there has to be a minimum if you want to be able to compete,” he said.

Chameau also emphasized the importance of working with private investors to create a “broader ecosystem” including industrial development, hotels and restaurants.

He highlighted how some of the “great institutions in the world” had become “destinations” in their own right.

“People want to go there because exciting things take place there, within or around it: great discoveries, great science, great innovation, new businesses -- it’s exciting, they are destinations. To do that you also have a campus which is attractive, it is fun to be there,” Chameau said.

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