Frédéric Mion, President, Sciences Po on the strategies that set his institute on the path of global recognition
The institute has been around since 1871 but you decided to start working on internationalisation only in the late 90s.What changed?
It was a very conscious decision made at the end of the 90s by my predecessor Richard Descoing with the help of some key people. It came from the realisation that Science Po was really well known in
France as the training ground for administrative elites even though 80 per cent of its graduates ended up in the private sector. So, the truth was that we trained people for a lot more than what the impression was. But, it was a very Franco-centric institution in the sense that only French students and teachers were recruited and we did not conceive of ourselves as open to students at large around the world. My predecessor realised that if that were to remain the case then Sciences Po would condemn itself to irrelevance and extinction hence an internationalisation process was started.
What would your advice be for institutions in India and elsewhere trying to go for internationalisation?
Every institution chooses its own path and there is not one single model that would apply universally. That being said, institutions wishing to open themselves to the world must be ready to accept the internal changes that it implies. This is not to say that universities in India or elsewhere must follow a
Western model, or Western structures but they need to make themselves compatible with their partners. Internationalisation offers an opportunity to compare, learn from others and ultimately upgrade our universities qualitatively. Upgrade the quality of the service provided to our students, dematerialise administrative processes whenever possible and make our course structure compatible with our partners to facilitate student mobility.
Foreign partnerships cannot simply be an addon to static structures. Our most successful partnerships in India are those with the institutions that have made these international collaborations an integral part of their structure. I understand that the context of higher education in India is quite constrained by regulations but even within the existing rules, one can already do quite a lot. Some public universities are also now pushing the boundaries by inducing fairly radical change. The University of Delhi recently overhauled its undergraduate programme, introduced credits and credit transfers, without the regulatory framework budging an iota.
You are probably one of the institutions with the highest number of collaborations. You have 400 partnerships. What is the vision and strategy for your international partnerships?
The first aspect is that an international exposure is an essential part of the education we provide to our students. They need to develop the ability to contextualise what they learn in different cultural settings. They need to look at what they know from different vantage points. They also need to learn how to adapt themselves and learn from and within unfamiliar environments.
The second aspect is that our students become our ambassadors across the world, make ourselves known in their classes, on their campuses, which encourage students from all these partner universities to come to Sciences Po either through the exchange programmes or as degree seeking students. The essential part of our degree seeking international students comes from our partner universities. The exchange programmes increased the attractiveness of Sciences Po.
More than 1200 students study at Sciences Po every year on exchange. How does that help?
This is the third important aspect of our internationalisation policy. The quality of the education you receive does not stem only from the kind of teaching imparted but also from the students who make up the class. The more diverse the student body is, the richer the debate —or discussion— becomes. To give you an example, in our Mediterranean campus, in Menton, students take courses on the Middle East and debate the situation of this region in classes that comprise students from Egypt, Tunisia, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and so forth. This is as valuable an asset as is the quality of the faculty, if not more.
What kind of relationships do you currently have with Indian institutions and what are your future plans?
We have 14 existing partnerships with Indian institutions. Most of them are pure student exchange programmes which are a very important first step that enables us to send about 100 students every year and to take in the rough equivalent number of Indian students. We think it’s important and we’re going forward in that direction. We have signed an MoUs with University of Delhi that enables us to have exchanges with any of the colleges within the university. In order to make that possible DU has implemented a new credit transfer system which makes it possible for any college student to come to Paris, earn credits and use them for the completion of their degree in India. We signed another one with Presidency University in Kolkata and with Ashoka University. It’s the first time we are tying up with a university that does not yet exist and is due to start in August 2014. Exchange of students and of faculty is what we are looking at in our tie-ups and if things go well then maybe we would want to build dual degrees in future.
In 2011, Sciences Po rose from 100th to 59th place in QS world university rankings for social sciences. What changed in just one year?
What may have changed is simply the fact that we understood how critical rankings were for a number of reasons. I find rankings flawed in many ways. I do not recognise the ranks that they assign to you as being totally indicative of the actual level you have reached. But rankings have to be taken into account. They exist and you have to play by their rules up to a point and we realised that if we were to do our jobs properly we had to answer their questions as well as we could and to try and bring forward our strengths which are actually solid or so we think. So what happened was that we took that exercise more seriously and decided to abide by the set rules that those rankings apply. But that year, what also happened is that, we realised that we had built in the preceding years new strengths at Science Po in terms of research capabilities, in terms of bringing in international faculty and so on and we had to learn how to make that known better.
Why has Sciences Po restricted itself to only the social sciences?
Social sciences can be seen everywhere. There is no object of study or parcel of human activity that cannot be looked at through the lenses of social sciences. But besides that, Sciences Po was created with the purpose of providing a broad education, grounded in the social sciences and we wish to be faithful to that heritage, constitutive of our identity. It would not make sense to open a medical school, or an engineering college from scratch. Instead, we can connect and develop partnerships with universities that aren’t like us. For example, we have students doing a dual bachelor degree in sciences and social sciences, with the Paris VI, Pierre and Marie Curie. This is one of the finest science faculty in the world, right at our doorstep. It makes much more sense to collaborate with them than trying to compete with them.
Given that you are focused on Social Sciences how do you attract funding and endowment?
Sciences Po has its own scholarship programme, named after our founder, Emile Boutmy. We simply redistribute a part of the tuition fees collected in the form of scholarship. For European students, the level of tuition is determined by their parents’ income level. Only those who have the means pay the maximum fees. International students pay the higher level of tuition but have access to the scholarship programme, on the basis of merit and need. This means that, paradoxically, raising the fees at Sciences Po helped us to become more inclusive. Besides that, we raise funds among our alumni, develop corporate partnerships, inform our successful candidates of scholarship opportunities in their home country, or through the French embassies. 30% of our students – all nationalities included – are scholarship holders.
What is the relevance of engaging with the industry for a social sciences focused university? What are some of the partnerships you have with industry?
Social sciences provide decision makers critical tools to understand the world we live in. No problem we are confronted with can only be addressed through technology. In the United States, the strongest advocates of liberal education and humanities recently have been the technology companies. Even in India, tech-servicing companies look beyond the engineers and the MBAs and are searching for young professionals well versed in social sciences, equipped with effective communication skills, able to grasp the complexity of global issues. Sciences Po’s experience with diversity has led large French companies like L’Oreal or Cap Gemini to partner with us, to support our effort to include students from all social avenues, and to also learn from us on issues related to inclusion and management of diversity.
Our regional expertise also enables us to partner with large groups who have interests in these areas. Groups such as Lafarge and Total support our efforts in Africa and the Middle East. One of Sciences Po’s strength lies in the understanding of public-private interfaces and we work with companies like Areva, EDF or Veolia on these issues.
Some partnerships are country specific. For example, we have an India Chair at Sciences Po jointly supported by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and the group Chanel. Besides that, our Executive Education division trains every year 7,000 odd executives from both public and private sectors, which is another way to make social sciences relevant to industry.