France Looks to the Big League

France Looks to the Big League

Plans to create a French Ivy League are part of the biggest shake-up in French higher education since students threw cobbled stones in les évènements of 1968. Championed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, the idea is to spend €7.7 billion ($10.6 billion) to produce a handful of world-class universities which can compete with the best that North America and the rest of Europe have to offer. The proposed “Sorbonne League” will require the country’s highly selective business and engineering schools, or grandes écoles, to work with universities and independent research organisations in return for financial support. They will also be expected to get closer to the business community.

While state funded universities in the UK and North America look anxiously at their balance sheets, these financially flush new partnerships may help France to reverse its recent poor performance in the global university rankings. But some argue that Mr Sarkozy’s use of taxpayers’ money is more an exercise in academic vanity than a way to achieve commercial success. After all, business schools the world over have already come to understand the value of collaboration with other academic disciplines to create wealth and jobs. The collaboration between Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s management, engineering and science faculties, for example has created over 130 companies in the past 20 years with a market capitalisation of over $15 billion. In France itself, HEC Paris hasn’t waited for state handouts to partner with a prestigious engineering school, Ecole Polytechnique, to bring together business strategy and technological innovation. And beyond the fields of science and technology, Imperial College London has created an incubator with the Royal College of Arts to turn design ideas into viable business propositions.

However, there are a number of institutions around the world that show no signs of tying the knot with business schools, let alone offering the ubiquitous MBA. Caltech and Princeton. for example, are successful despite being the only two universities in the top 25 of the Times Higher Education university ranking that do not have a dedicated business school.

Caltech, for example, with its focus on science and engineering boasts an impressive 31 Nobel prize recipients for a school of only 300 faculty and 2,175 students. And the institution’s concentration on pure science has not prevented alumni from becoming industry leaders, including the co-founder of Intel, the chairman of Boeing and the founder of the business incubator, Idealab.

Jonathan Katz, the Chair for Humanities and Social Sciences, argues that a commitment to a liberal education means that students look at aspects of business that are often overlooked in MBA programmes. Courses in behavioural and social neurosciences for example use neurology, psychology, and economics to shed light on how people do business.

So if you are looking to explain how traders make decision, or why consumers will pay more for goods they can touch, you might want to ask a scientist rather than a businessman. Apparently they can even explain your choice of political candidate. Something the big-spending French president may want to think about as he seeks re-election next year.

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