France's business and management schools top the Financial Times' annual European rankings, but French higher education system still lags in other surveys.


By Dominique Seux

PARIS - Four of the top10; five of the top 15; eighteen of the top 70. France can indeed be proud of the 2010 results of the annual European business and management school rankings conducted by our colleagues at the Financial Times. Indeed our two shining lights, HEC Paris (École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris) and INSEAD (Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires), claimed the first and third overall spots, while ESCP Europe has also taken a great leap forward.

Beyond the endless debates about the relevance of the criteria that lead to these results, these scores can be read in two ways. The first relates directly to the educational community: a confirmation of the strategy employed for many years by these schools to strengthen the faculty, while offering more and more master's, MBA and continuing education programs for executives. 


The second reading should interest the public at large. The success of institutions that have managed to impose their brand internationally is proof that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the French have definitely not kissed goodbye to the economy and trade! The influence of the alumni of these schools also continues to grow, as shown by another notable indicator: the number of reviews in the "Who's Who."  


These results, however, raise another question. Why are the French "Grandes Ecoles" in the fields of management and engineering rated so highly in the European charts, yet find themselves in trouble when the competition widens? 


These elite schools are separate from the French university system and present two major differences: universities are the cheaper option and have an obligation to accept all students; "grandes ecoles" can cost ten times more and select the best students based on written and oral exams.


The best-known illustration is the by now infamous results of French institutions (and similarly dismal showings across much of Europe) in the Shanghai Rankings of world universities. The problem reflects a multifaceted reality. The importance given to basic sciences, the accumulation of Nobel Prizes and the number of articles published in major journals plays against Europe and France. Another explanation offered is less convincing: it is the "scale effect", which has led Valerie Pécresse, France's Minister of Higher Education, to ask the institutions to band together. But this proposal naturally appears questionable in the face of the outstanding performances of small institutions such as Insead and ENS (École normale supérieure) at Rue d'Ulm.


The truth is that in terms of financial commitment and other resources devoted to students, French schools are still dwarfed by their competitors, particularly those in the United States. Of course, this is not very politically correct to say.



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