France's biggest uni goes solo

The merger of three universities has made Strasbourg the largest in France - now it is among the first to be independent

28 February 2009

The new University of Strasbourg is now France's biggest, with 42,000 students following the merger of three universities.

The amalgamation of Université Strasbourg 1 - Louis Pasteur, Université Strasbourg 2 - Marc Bloch and Université Strasbourg 3 - Robert Schuman reverses a division that occurred in the 1970s of a university dating from 1631.

The new university is also one of 20 to have become autonomous under the Loi Pécresse - an idea the government wants to roll out to all universities.

Former Strasbourg students include Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer and Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, while Louis Pasteur is among notables to have taught there.

Oliver Rowland spoke to its new president, Alain Beretz.

Can you explain the recent changes?

We started planning the merger four years ago - looking at the strategic goals of the three universities. We thought it was about time to go back to just one. Then the Pécresse law came along, and we thought increased autonomy for our new university would be interesting.

Historically there was just one, but it was a loose federation of faculties without a strong common leadership.

We will still encourage our different faculties to show independence, while having shared policies and one presidency. We want to be a university for the 21st Century, where the university itself has a clear political personality.

This is clear for us and for our students and is already having benefits.

You are now the largest university in France?

Yes, although size was not a consideration in itself in the merger, and if a merger takes place in Marseille, which is the next likely site, that will be bigger. What we wanted was to come back to a comprehensive university, which is how French universities were before they were split up by a 1968 reform. We had three, each focusing on certain disciplines.

My former university - Louis Pasteur - was for science and health while the others focused on humanities and on law and business. Now we have a more international model which will enable people to do more varied studies - similar to the American system of majors and minors, where the major could be something like biology and the minor might be law. That was not possible before.

The autonomy fits in well with all this too?

Yes, when we started looking at the details of the merger we were thinking the old rules did not give us all the tools we wanted to make the most of our plans and we were wondering if we could ask for special by-laws from the ministry. We are happy to have been given these new possibilities.

Autonomy is not just a French issue but something that is being discussed internationally. Before, a lot of things were decided in Paris that directly affected our everyday life - the hiring of employees, especially lecturers and assistant lecturers, was a national process, as were decisions about what positions were needed.

Instead of the Ministry of Higher Education sending us money for very specific goals they now send us an overall sum which we spend as we like.

This makes things easier for us but we will have to make sure the ministry is sending a lump sum that is enough for all our needs and we will need to use more precise, more analytical accounting techniques.

Does it mean you are free to drop certain subjects if you wanted to, for example?

We are more or less free to choose the range of subjects, but our goal is a complete academic offer, so we would be more likely to go the other way.

When you have a big university it is easier to offer disciplines that are not so fashionable. We might choose to give more money to one discipline or another in terms of teaching and research.

With Strasbourg being the seat of several European institutions one goal is to increase the European character of our courses and research - one day we might be known as the European University of Strasbourg.

This could include law and business matters but also, for example, we have a strong pharmacy faculty and looking at European drugs regulations is interesting.

We also want to increase the quota of foreign students, especially European ones and the fact we are one university is good for our international image. We want to be an important centre for exchange schemes like Erasmus.

Already we have one of the highest proportions of foreign students - more than 20%.

Do you agree with Valérie Pécresse over the importance of English in universities?

Yes, we are pushing the use of English. We already have some courses in English, especially at masters level. Even if some people might regret it, English has become a lingua franca in the academic world.

If we want to attract foreign students in certain subjects the question of English-language teaching is interesting and I favour it, but we should not go too far, as some foreign students are keen to come and study in French.

We also want our French students to come out with at least basic English, and if possible another language too.

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