Education Sans Borders

How and why Sciences Po transformed from a small franco-centric elite school into an international university

The history of Institut d’études politiques de Paris also known as Sciences Po can be divided into three clear eras. The first was its creation in 1871 by Émile Boutmy, an educationist and thinker, to reform the training of top French civil servants, politicians and diplomats, following the humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The second was its restructuring ordered in 1945 by President Charles de Gaulle following the Nazi occupation of France. The third was the opening up of its doors to the world following the appointment of Richard Descoings as its President in 1996.

Such was the effect of Descoings’ transformational leadership spanning 16 years that after his sudden death in a New York hotel in April 2012, education analysts and media around the world went into a tizzy speculating how it would affect the institute. His succession raised interest at the highest level of the state and was marred by controversy. For almost a year the institute battled allegations and scrutiny. The debates grew to such an extent that at one point the detractors of Descoings questioned whether it didn’t make more sense to go back to the institute’s old mission of being a feeder for Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) rather than continue on its internationalisation path and compete with the American universities.

 The education minister rejected a first candidate and asked Sciences Po to put a proper procedure in place, which it did, reluctantly at first but at the end of the day successfully. It’s been just a year since the appointment of the new President Frédéric Mion, an alumnus of Sciences Po just like Descoings, and it already seems that order has been restored.

Mion has made it clear that the university will stay on the path that was set by Descoings. On his recent visit to India he made it even clearer that internationalisation will remain a big focus for the University. He signed MoUs for student and faculty exchange with Delhi University, Presidency University and Ashoka University.

Why internationalise?

But why focus on internationalisation now? Francis Vérillaud, Vice President and Director of International Affairs and Exchanges at Sciences Po has the answer. “Our world is becoming very complicated with a lot of issues and conflicts. It’s our responsibility to educate and train people to grasp this complexity. And it can be done better when there’s diversity in the student profile. Not just of nationality and culture but also of economical and sociological backgrounds. For a Social Science university it makes even more sense to attract students from diverse backgrounds. By getting non-French and non-elite students you are bringing in new languages, ways of thinking and perspectives.”

Talking about why the university and Descoings decided to take this route, Mion says, “My predecessor realised that if we were to remain Francocentric then Sciences Po would condemn itself to irrelevance and extinction.”

What are the challenges?

So how difficult was it to take the leap? Did the University face any opposition? Vérillaud says, “Change is always difficult and for my generation even more so.” He says that what they faced was not really opposition, but tension related to a change in identity. A 140-year-old institution becomes a part of the country’s identity. A change in student profile from only French to almost 50 per cent international students would mean a disturbance in the old order.

Sciences Po is subsidized and financed partially by the French tax payers; does that mean that it is being unfair to the taxpayers by targeting international students? “No. The French tax payers can and should understand that they are paying for the best university in France. In a world without borders the best university is one that has the capacity to attract students from wherever they are in the world,” asserts Vérillaud.

How does one plan to go global?

Is there a magic formula in a plan to go global? How long does it take to plan and prepare oneself?

There is unfortunately no quick fix. As Mion says, “Every institution chooses its own path and there is not one single model that would apply universally.”But should you prepare yourself for it? Vérillaud does not think it necessary. “If you start preparing, you will never take off. You need to go when you are not ready. Take one step at a time in the direction that you want to go. You may have to take a different road, but you will reach your destination as long as you are aware and able to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way and keep innovating as you move ahead.”

How can one keep innovating?

A great example of how Sciences Po took advantage of opportunities is how it came to establish its six campuses for under-graduate studies, each with a different international and academic focus.

The institute ran an entry preparation programme with the University of Nancy in the East of France, which allowed the students at the University of Nancy to go to Sciences Po in the second year. As Sciences Po started transforming it decided to re-organise its undergraduate programmes and start a graduate programme at Paris. The University of Nancy thought that they would have to close down their programme they were offering.

This is when Sciences Po decided to innovate and start an undergraduate first year programme at Nancy in the year 2000. The programme was established with a Franco-German focus as Nancy was on the German border. Soon local authorities at Dijon, which is close by, heard about the programme at Nancy and approached Sciences Po to do something similar. It was a matter of great pride for the provinces to have a Parisian university set up a campus there.

So the East European Undergraduate programme at Dijon was established in 2001. Poitier’s Euro- Latin American campus followed soon after in 2001. After that Sciences Po did not have to go looking to establish different campuses. People from different regions came up to them. The concept of focusing on different regions of the world had also developed by then. Hence the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean programme was founded at Menton in 2005, the Europe-Asia programme at Le Havre in 2007 and the Europe- Northern America programme at Reims in 2009. A Europe-Africa programme, currently hosted on the Paris campus, was established two years ago.

Can accidents show the way?

Vérillaud points out, “The formation of these campuses could be called an accident but with every step forward it turned into a fantastic project.” The decision to introduce instruction in region specific languages was quite organic. If you wanted the world to come to your campus, you would have to offer them instruction in a language that they were comfortable with. So besides English and French which is used at all campuses at Menton they can learn Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and Greek. At Le Havre they’ll learn Japanese, Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian and so on. “It was a crucial decision to teach in a language that everyone understood and so for us it meant using English. It was not necessarily in accordance with French tradition, but was a decisive step towards attracting the best students from outside France,” shares Mion.

What does opening doors truly mean?

Merely teaching region specific languages and focusing on different parts of the world was not enough according to Vérillaud. “Our project to make these colleges a global platform that has doors and windows that go to all the regions of the world would have been incomplete without letting people from outside open the doors and come into these colleges,” he remarks.

The concept of a compulsory third year abroad for undergraduate thus came about and became an innovation that is probably one of a kind in the academic world. The school entered into partner- ships with over 400 international schools and also introduced 35 double degree programmes.

But does opening doors only mean recruiting international students and exchange programmes?

For Descoings it meant much more than that. The institute consciously started breaking away from its elitist past to make it accessible for students from the most disadvantaged areas and sections of France, including ethnic minority groups.

In what was perhaps seen as revolutionary for some and a dilution of the quality of student intake for others, Descoings created a new path for admission, based on students’ profiles and interviews. He also abolished a component of the classic entrance exam, the concours de culture générale, feeling that these exams were discriminatory, relying excessively on social and cultural capital.

In spite of protests from students and others in 2005 the institute changed its fee structure to make wealthier students pay an increased fee of €9,800 for undergraduate studies and €13,500 for graduate studies. It created a scale of fees ensuring that European students would pay according to their family’s income level. A large part of these fees fed an extensive scholarship fund, the Émile Boutmy scholarship.

What role do teachers play?

Does internationalisation only mean opening of doors to students? Of course not! Sciences Po understood this and made sure that it made teaching there attractive for the best. It started paying its teachers at a par with the best in the world, something that critics after the death of Descoings condemned as management extravagance.

Sciences Po had a very small size of permanent faculty probably because it was set up as a private school and not a university. Most of the faculty teaching were adjunct faculty and included professionals like bankers, diplomats, civil servants, marketing experts and communication experts.

When the globalisation effort started, the institution did not think of changing this composition. They in fact highlighted this model of a large adjunct faculty as a key differentiating factor that made it more global. This makes it possible for the institute to have instructors like the French

President Francois Hollande, and Nobel Prize Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz. Neha Khanna, Deputy Representative of Sciences Po in India, who studied at LSE says, “I wish I had studied at Sciences Po. These teachers know the job market and they know how you need to fit in the market and meeting these teachers who are also professionals in the class means there’s a high chance of being placed even before you graduate.” Almost 50 per cent of students at the masters’ level actually do land a job while still at school. Its permanent faculty size today is 200 and adjunct faculty size 3800.

What now? What next?

If you have got your student and teacher composition right, aligned the curriculum to globally accepted parameters and introduced innovations that encourage mobility does it mean that you have got it all sorted? Globalisation and reforms are a continuous process and the best universities are once that embrace change. Whether it means using more technology in class or redesigning the curriculum frequently, it is the responsibility of the university to keep evolving to remain relevant.

Though the methods that Descoings adopted may not have been to the liking of many people, the reforms that he introduced in a short span catapulted his institute from a tiny inconspicuous school in France to a University that today competes with the likes of London School of Economics.

For Mion, the current President the challenge will be how to sustain the growth of the institute and also to continue innovating. For now the strategies that the institute adopted under Descoings to go global, will continue to be seen as models worth emulating


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