In farm fields south of Paris, billions of euros are beingploughed into a new modern university campus designed to rivalHarvard, MIT and Cambridge as one of the world’s best. TheParis-Saclay super-campus is France’s answer to years of decline inhigher education, with the result that the nation’s best universityonly ranks 40th in the world.
France, a country that builds state-of-the-art nuclear reactors,super-fast trains and boasts cutting-edge aerospace, now wants toshow off its brain power in scientific research andlearning. “Our goal is to rank among the top 10 universitiesin the world,” said Herve Le Riche, who heads the 4.4-billion-europroject (5.9 billion dollars) in Saclay, a plateau of grain fieldsdotted with clusters of modern buildings.
Already home to some top-notch colleges such as thePolytechnique engineering school, the new campus will start openingits doors in 2015 as a grouping of 23 universities, colleges andresearch institutes. New laboratories, amphitheatres, studenthousing along with shops and transport will be built with a view tomaking France a destination for some of the best and brightest whonow head to US and British universities. Many French elitecolleges produce crackerjack scientists, engineers and managers,but they are often too small to sustain cutting-edge researchprogrammes that wealthy American universities are known for.
Paris-Saclay aims to combine academic training with researchfrom high-performance institutes like the CEA nuclear agency, whiletapping into the innovation from big industry names like Thales, aEuropean leader in aerospace. The ambitious project enjoys thebacking of one key figure: President Nicolas Sarkozy whosegovernment is digging deep into its pockets to make the dream of aworld-class university a reality.
Sarkozy got the academic world talking when he announced thatone billion euros of his 35-billion-euro national loan programmewould go to Paris-Saclay. That’s on top of 850 million eurosearmarked for the project under his government’s university reformprogramme. During a recent visit to New York’s ColumbiaUniversity, Sarkozy heaped praise on “this magnificient place” andremarked that he wanted to “reform French universities based on themodel that you have here.”
France fares poorly in the world universities ranking compiledby Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Paris VI Pierre and Marie CurieUniversity is the top rated French university, coming in at number40 in the 2009 ranking. Only two universities in Europe areamong the top 10: Britain’s Cambridge and Oxford. Harvard tops thelist and eight of the top 10 are in the United States. Francehas only three universities ranked among the world’s top 100.
“We are not going to draw Chinese and Korean students with smallschools that take in 80 students,” said Cedric Dufour, who heads astudents’ association backing the Paris-Saclay project. Dufoursaid the concept of engineering schools cooperating with researchinstitutes, companies and universities marks a sea change forFrance where academia has traditionally been divided.
“It’s the first time that the French government has put forwardthat level of resources in a project. We have the skills to dosomething that is really high performance,” said Dufour, a23-year-old student at the AgroParis Tech school of environment andearth sciences. If the various institutes, colleges anduniversities do succeed in coming together, the combined brainpower will be impressive.
The 2007 Nobel Prize winner in physics, Albert Fert, alreadyclaims Paris-Saclay as his home. The 62-year-old physicist whodiscovered giant magnetoresistance teaches at Paris-sud universityand heads a laboratory of the CNRS national research council andthe Thales group. There is also the IHES Institute of HigherStudies in Science which has produced on its own 11 of the total 44winners of the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize for mathematics.
The Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC) business management school,which ranks as the best in Europe according to The Financial Times,is also nearby along with the Supelec school of electrical andcomputer engineers. Nine universities, colleges and institutesares scheduled to move to the new campus, located some 25kilometres (15 miles) southwest of Paris by 2020. When it isfully up and running in 10 years’ time, Paris-Saclay will welcomemore than 31,000 students and 12,000 full-timeresearchers. “We are building the university of the 21stcentury. That’s really what’s at stake,” said Le Riche.
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