To illustrate the sorry state of higher education in France, Richard Descoings cites one very telling statistic. As the director of the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris -- an institution of 5,500 students better known as Sciences Po -- Descoings' operating budget last year was $70 million. That's to maintain one of Europe's most elite schools. Princeton University, which is comparable in the size of its student body, course offerings, and prestige, had a budget last year of $800 million. "The gap is there, and it's growing," says Descoings.
To address this crisis, Descoings, 45, has turned himself into one of Europe's leading advocates of higher education reform. At Sciences Po, where he has been in charge since 1996, he has promoted exchange programs with the likes of Columbia and Harvard, tripling the number of foreign students. A third of all classes are now taught in languages other than French, and students are required to spend one year abroad -- either working or studying.
But the real issue is money. Europe's cash-strapped governments can no longer afford to properly fund their public universities. The world-famous Sorbonne has no sports facilities, and its computer systems are creaky at best. And because monthly salaries of tenured professors in French universities top out at under $6,000 a month, many of the best and brightest are being lured away by American universities. "Research is now a catastrophe in France," says Descoings.
To improve the situation, Descoings is talking publicly about a long-taboo subject in France: raising the price of education. Annual tuition at Sciences Po is just $1,160 -- and most students pay much less. But the university spends $16,000 a year per student. In May, Descoings set up a commission to look at raising the school's tuition to as much as $4,500 a year -- an increase likely to go into effect next year. But, as Descoings notes, that would be only one battle in a broader war to raise French education to a higher standard.