MYTHBUSTER: French universities not up to scratch

French universities are listed far below their US and UK equivalents in world ratings, meaning they do not have the same high international reputation.

23 January 2019
By Connexion journalist

This is false!

In one of the most influential listings, the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, Harvard and Stanford are first and second, Cambridge third. France’s top university, the Sorbonne, is 36th.

France has 19 universities in the top 500, compared to 139 in the US and 39 in the UK.

In the Times Education Supplement (TES) World University Rankings 2018, the first entry for France, Paris Sciences et Lettres, appears in 72nd place, and the list is dominated by the US and UK, with the top two places going to Oxford and Cambridge.

However, criteria for these listings have been criticised as too narrow, concentrating heavily on research and not teaching.

The Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, for example, looks only at science subjects and takes into account the number of Nobel Prize winners and the number of publications in scientific reviews. The TES is also based on judging research-intensive universities, and states it looks at “teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook”.

A study by three academics for Tours University in 2009, “Should you believe in the Shanghai ranking?”, concluded that “the criteria that are used are not relevant” and “the Shanghai ranking ... does not qualify as a useful and pertinent tool to discuss the quality of academic institutions, let alone to guide the choice of students and family”.

Gilles Roussel, president of the CPU, which represents university and grandes écoles presidents, told France Info that French universities are not centres of research so France cannot rate highly. “Our qualities are not necessarily reflected in the Shanghai classification system. This is, above all, because we separate our universities from research bodies like the CNRS, which attract excellent researchers but which are not, in fact, universities.”

He also says that one of the criteria taken into account is budget and the amount of money allocated to French universities is lower than in the UK and the US, another element that pushes them down the ratings.

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