Ten miles from King Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles, another monument to French ambition is rising out of muddy wheat fields.
Twenty colleges and research institutes are combining to create Universite Paris-Saclay, soon to be one of France’s largest universities, at a cost of about 6.5 billion euros ($9 billion). It’s France’s bid to crack the top of rankings that increasingly dominate international higher education.
“Our ambition is to be among the top 10” in the rankings compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said Dominique Vernay, chairman of the foundation creating Paris-Saclay. “The first goal is to be the top university in continental Europe.”
Countries from Finland to Portugal are shaping their higher education policies based on outside rankings, eager for the validation and attention the annual lists bestow, even while they are criticized as flawed or misleading. Because bigger is perceived as better in these lists, governments are merging campuses in hopes of attracting research money and higher caliber faculty and students.
The high-stakes pursuit of bragging rights is distorting universities’ missions, favoring research over teaching and science over the humanities, said Ellen Hazelkorn, director of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit at the Dublin Institute of Technology.
“It’s all about national prestige,” said Hazelkorn, who has written widely about rankings. “Rankings are less about students and more about geopolitics.”
The most influential global rankings are produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University; Times Higher Education, a U.K. trade publication; and QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd., an education-consulting company based in London. They were never intended to be used to dictate government policy, said Ben Sowter, head of research for QS.
Governments that depend on outside rankings may be ceding too much control to organizations that can change the methodology “on a whim,” Sowter said. It’s the “equivalent to giving up responsibility for your own destiny.”
U.S. News and World Report, which initiated its rankings of American colleges in 1983, is expanding overseas and will evaluate Arab universities this year in the Middle East and North Africa, said Robert Morse, director of data research at U.S. News. Its U.S. rankings have so much sway with students, parents and donors that some schools have misreported data or skewed the results of a reputation survey to move up the table.
Rankings are driving an emphasis on large, research-driven institutions like those in the U.S. and U.K., said Jean-Paul Jourdan, president of Universite Michel de Montaigne in Bordeaux, France, which decided last year against merging with other schools.
“The American and U.K. models are dominating and forcing the rest of us to follow,” Jourdan said. “We refuse that.”
Among the institutions forming Paris-Saclay are HEC Paris, a business school, and Ecole Polytechnique, an engineering and sciences school. Other prominent French institutions including Universite Paris-Sorbonne and INSEAD business school have received government funding to form new partnerships although not all have advanced to full mergers.
Rankings aren’t the only motive for merging universities. Governments also hope to improve efficiency and expand science departments to attract more research funding.
“I want to change how French universities work, but it’s to make them better, not for the rankings,” Genevieve Fioraso, France’s minister for higher education and research, said in an interview. “We want more research, we want our universities to be more open to the world, more international, more open to companies.”
American and British universities make up the top 10 in the three most important global rankings. ETH Zurich, a technology institute in Switzerland, is the top school outside the U.S. and U.K., ranked between 12th and 20th in the three rankings.
Competition among other nations to move up is fierce.
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared in 2012 that at least five Russian universities would be ranked in the top 100 by 2020 -- only one, Moscow State University, is now. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lamented India’s lackluster performance in the rankings.
“It is a sobering thought for us that not one Indian university figures in the top 200 universities of the world today,” Singh said in a 2013 speech.
Finland has already combined 10 institutions into four universities, partly to attract foreign students and faculty through improved rankings. In a 2010 speech, Perttu Vartiainen, rector of the newly formed University of Eastern Finland, then ranked 308 in the world by QS, set a goal of being in the top 200 by 2015.
“Officially, if you ask the government, the answer is that we don’t believe in rankings,” said Jani Ursin, a researcher in higher education at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland. “The fact is, rankings are shaping our higher education system, for sure.”
Rankings figured into the 2013 merger of the University of Lisbon and Lisbon Technical University, said Nuno Crato, Portugal’s minister of education and science, in an interview. Having a highly placed university is akin to winning a gold medal in the Olympics, he said.
University rankings are deciding who receives a scholarship or immigration visa. In Kazakhstan, students who enroll at foreign universities ranked in the top 100 are eligible for presidential scholarships, while the Netherlands, Denmark and Singapore all give special consideration to immigrants with degrees from ranked institutions.
Rankings were designed as a tool for university applicants and administrators and, in the case of THE, to help draw attention to the publication. They can also highlight the deficiencies of universities and national systems, said Jamil Salmi, an education economist.
“Not all universities are created equal,” said Salmi, who used to work for the World Bank.
In the U.S., rather than relying on outside rankings, the government is creating its own. Last year, President Barack Obama said the Education Department will begin ranking colleges before the 2015 school year to determine which offer the best value. Using the ratings, “Congress can tie federal student aid to college performance,” according to a White House statement.
Rankings are guiding national policy even as their methodologies are suspect, Dublin’s Hazelkorn said.
They don’t measure teaching quality or whether students actually learn, she said. A college’s reputation, which is given heavy weight by THE and QS, isn’t an indicator of excellence. Research is graded by how often faculty work is cited in academic journals instead of its value to society, she said.
The Shanghai Jiao Tong’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, first published in 2003, ignores research in the humanities, and gives 30 percent of its weighting to alumni and faculty winning Nobel Prizes in science and economics and Fields Medals in math. An additional 20 percent is allotted to publication in Nature and Science, while the number of citations and published papers makes up the balance.
“They were the best practical and globally comparable indicators we could find 10 years ago,” Nian Cai Liu, dean of the graduate school of education at Shanghai Jiao Tong, said in an e-mail. “They are still among the best practical and globally comparable indicators anyone could find in the present time.”
Times Higher Education uses the results of a reputation survey for a third of a university’s total score. Reputation is a valid measure, given the size of the investment families make in education, said Phil Baty, editor of the rankings. On March 5, THE published an annual rankings based solely on the reputation survey, one of five annual releases. Harvard University was first.
“Brand is important,” Baty said. “For a Chinese family sending their one child to a university overseas, it’s absolutely right that they seek reassurance that there is a strong global recognition of the brand. It’s a life decision.”
Still, students and parents shouldn’t rely solely on rankings, said Baty, who added he would like to develop criteria that measure the impact of teaching and research.
Exasperation with existing rankings has led the European Union to spend 2 million euros to fund the U-Multirank. The new ranking will sort universities along multiple indicators, including research, learning and teaching. Users will be able to determine the best university for their needs, said coordinator Gero Federkeil, who works for CHE Centre for Higher Education in Gutersloh, Germany, one of the managers of the project.
“There was this concern about the quality and failings of the existing rankings,” Federkeil said. “There was also a frustration about the position of European universities in the rankings.”
France’s highest institution in the inaugural Shanghai rankings was the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie, at 65th. That disappointing performance helped ignite a series of reforms under former President Nicolas Sarkozy. The university has since moved up to 37th.
“The French were confronted with the problem of rankings, and suddenly they found they weren’t the best in the world,” said Sebastien Stride, a founding partner at SIRIS Academic SL, a Barcelona-based consulting company working on the Paris-Saclay project. “The French government had a moment of panic and set out to do something about it.”
In 2009, Sarkozy dedicated 11 billion euros in new education funding, much of it awarded through competitions. To tap the money, France’s universities and colleges had to make plans to combine and create institutions that are “capable of rivaling the greatest universities in the world, like Harvard, Princeton or Cambridge,” according to a Website of the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research.
On Jan. 1, three schools in southwest France combined to form the University of Bordeaux, while a fourth refused to join. University Michel de Montaigne, with a focus on arts and humanities, would have been lost in the new, science-dominated university, said Jourdan, its president.
“The merger was decided to give the university international visibility, mainly -- if not only -- to exist on the rankings,” Jourdan said. “It was their obsession: Shanghai, Shanghai, Shanghai.”
France’s gloom over the Shanghai rankings coincided with a concern that higher education had become unwieldy, spread across large public universities, small, quasi-independent grande ecoles and state-funded research institutes.
“French education is very fragmented and very hard to explain to outsiders,” said Vernay, the Paris-Saclay chairman. “We want to create something that is really a university.”
Paris-Saclay will attempt to unite two universities, 11 grande ecoles and seven research institutes on a sprawling 1,350-acre campus 45 minutes south of Paris. While many of the schools are already on site, some will relocate from Paris. The institution will have about 60,000 students and 10,500 researchers.
The 6.5 billion-euro project will include research facilities, dormitories, cafeterias and a new metro line linking the campus with Paris, said physicist Claude Chappert, executive manager of the Paris-Saclay project. The university still must adopt a governance structure and hire a president, Vernay said.
Creating a mega-university may not pay off in the rankings, said Christine Musselin, dean of research at Sciences Po, a college in Paris, who studies French higher-education policy. Paris-Saclay would be more than twice the size of the largest university in the Shanghai top 10 -- the University of California at Berkeley, she said. The California Institute of Technology, ranked sixth by Shanghai and first by THE, has fewer than 2,300 students.
“The idea that if you are big, you are visible is very curious but people believe it,” Musselin said.
For Paris-Saclay, size isn’t as important as quality, Vernay said. Cracking the top 10 could help it attract the world’s best faculty and students, he said.
“What we want to create is a big bang in our country,” he said. “The goal is to be visible and attractive. Rankings is a means to the goal.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Oliver Staley in London at firstname.lastname@example.org