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Ranking agencies struggle to keep up with French mergers


Defining what constitutes a higher education institution is a vexed question in France, conference hears

International ranking agencies are struggling to keep up with the fast pace of organisational changes in French universities—and particularly with the growing number of mergers between institutions.

Ludo Waltman, deputy director at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS) at Leiden University in the Netherlands, which publishes annual rankings, said it was “really difficult for outsiders to keep track” of all the institutional changes in France in recent years.

He was speaking at an event on international rankings held on 7 September at the Curie Institute in Paris. It was organised by Clarivate*, with participation of PSL University and France Universités.

Waltman said he estimated that the time the CWTS had invested in defining the parameters of each French institution was equal to the time needed to define that element in “all the other countries in the world together”.

“How can we keep doing this in the longer term? Is this sustainable?” asked Waltman. “I think the answer is no.”

Lihui Liao, international consultant at the ShanghaiRanking Consultancy, said that while she was not a part of the rankings team that works on the Academic Ranking of World Universities, known as the Shanghai Ranking, she knew that the team also “had to put in a lot of effort to identify the French universities, especially [those] experiencing mergers—it’s hard for us to identify which universities are merged just by our efforts”.

Liao added that Shanghai Ranking staff did not contact universities directly, to maintain independence, but said that French universities would get in touch to inform them of a recent merger and, at this point, Shanghai staff would request government documents confirming it.

Experimental institutions

The spate of mergers between French universities, grande écoles and research institutes in recent years has been encouraged by the government, partially out of a desire to raise the placing of French universities in international rankings.

It is complicated by the frequently fluid nature of these mergers and the fact that, for up to 10 years, institutions can be part of ‘public experimental institutions’—trial mergers that may not ultimately form a single entity.

Waltman observed that the picture was further complicated in France—as in several other countries—by university hospitals’ status relative to a parent university and the fact that medical researchers will also frequently put their hospital affiliation on publications—the raw data for publication-based rankings parameters.

Speaking from the audience, Patrick Devos, a statistician at Lille Regional University Hospital Centre, said that he had done research which found that only 35 per cent of senior scientists with split university and hospital appointments put their university affiliation on publications.

Ranking limitations

Opening the conference, Alain Fuchs, president of PSL University and a former president of the CNRS, France’s largest public research organisation, said that rankings could help French universities evaluate the impact of restructuring that had occurred during what he described as the “far-reaching reorganisation of French higher education” of recent years.

“We are not unaware of the limitations of these exercises… But we have chosen to play an active role in interpreting and deciphering the rankings and to take a close look at how they’re produced,” Fuchs said.

Meanwhile, Dean Lewis, president of the University of Bordeaux and vice president of France Universités, said that looking across the French higher education landscape, international rankings remained “a non-subject, more a subject that concerns the press and politicians, and a few institutions that appear high up in the Shanghai Ranking”.

He said that while rankings could be useful in helping research-intensive universities define how “to position [themselves] internationally”, they were not used to define strategy in a narrow sense.

Lewis said: “We just don’t go into our labs and say, ‘Watch out, the Shanghai criteria have changed, we’ll have to publish in a completely different way!’” He added: “I don’t know of any very aggressive strategy [within any French university] to climb the international rankings.”

Publication pressure

Similarly, Daniel Egret, head of research and evaluation at PSL University, directly questioned the logic of using rankings parameters to set institutional goals. Following up on a comment from Liao that while French institutions tended to perform well in the awards-based categories of the Shanghai Rankings—Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals awarded to staff and alumni—they performed less well in the publication-based categories.

Egret responded: “Does the incentive to publish more represent a good direction to take? We work in a context where we’ve seen an explosion in publications at an international level. We’ve seen the creation of a ‘publish or perish’ culture… which has changed research practice within our labs. Is this change always good?”

He further observed that Nobel Prize and Fields Medal winners were rarely “citation factories”, but their value lay in their ability to produce experimental work and results “so interesting that they stimulate interest from their peers and the community”.

* Research Professional News is an editorially independent part of Clarivate.

A version of this article appeared in Research Europe