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Between universities, grandes écoles and specialised institutes, the higher education system in France has always been somewhat difficult to decipher.

The country’s business schools, too, are hard to categorise. Most of the internationally renowned MBA providers are also grandes écoles – traditionally excellent but highly selective, elitist establishments. Others, such as Insead, are privately run, and others still sit within the non-selective state university system – this is the case for the Sorbonne Graduate Business School, for instance.

Despite their reputation at home, however, many of France’s universities remain relatively unknown on the international stage. In the 2011 Shanghai exercise, which ranks the best universities in the world, the first French entry, Université Paris-Sud, came in at 40th place.

Now, in an attempt to address this issue and raise their international profile, as well as streamline the university system, Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, and Laurent Wauquiez, minister for higher education and research, have initiated a programme of higher education reforms.

The Initiatives d’Excellence (Idex) scheme rewards partnerships by allocating generous funds to clusters of universities, grandes écoles and other schools working together. Three Idexes have been confirmed so far, to the Paris Sciences et Lettres, University of Strasbourg and University of Bordeaux groupings.

The idea is to create “between five and 10 pôles universitaires (pools, or clusters) with international visibility, which will obviously enter into competition with the best institutions in the world,” says Mr Wauquiez.

“Part of what they’re trying to do is to get their own fragmented higher education system to come together and merge into more Anglo Saxon- type universities,” says Peter Zemsky, deputy dean for degree programmes and curriculum, and professor of strategy and innovation at Insead in Fontainebleau, France.

“It’s about finding their national champions, their MIT, their Oxford. They have excellent schools but they tend to be smaller entities and the system is much more fragmented,” says Prof Zemsky.

Philip McLaughlin, dean of BEM Management School Bordeaux – which is an associate member of the Bordeaux Idex – agrees that the status quo needs to change: “There are something like 80-odd universities in France and there has been a problem of visibility,” he says. In a further sign of the trend of consolidation among France’s schools, BEM last week announced a merger, due to come into effect in 2013, with Euromed Management in Marseille.

Although the Idex idea has been likened to a ‘Sorbonne league’ to compete with the US’ Ivy League and the UK’s Russell Group, Mr Wauquiez prefers not to make comparisons, saying only that the selected Idex pôles universitaires will be among the top players internationally.

Bernard Ramanantsoa, HEC’s dean, speaks highly of the move: “One major point is a willingness to invest in higher education and research, and to try to make French institutions compete globally.”

HEC, which already enjoys global renown – it is first in the FT’s 2011 European Business Schools ranking – is part of the fondation de co-opération scientifique Paris Saclay, a cluster competing for Idex funding.

“HEC became conscious of the need to focus on research several years ago – we have invested a lot into it, and 55 per cent of our faculty are international,” says Prof Ramanantsoa.

It is true that business schools in France are ahead of the game when it comes to global visibility. Perhaps they stand less to gain from the initiative than public university faculties, given that they already have strong links with international partners.

However, one way business schools might benefit from the Wauquiez reforms is by forming more partnerships with local science and technology faculties and companies.

Insead welcomes this: “When we were originally founded in France 50 years ago, the ambition was to be a European school so we steered clear of involvement with local French government,” says Prof Zemsky.

“However, when we went to Abu Dhabi and to Tsinghua we worked closely with government. We’re at a point where we’re realising that while we are global, there’s a win-win for us to engage with local governments and local institutions,” he says.

Mr Wauquiez agrees: “What we are looking to do is bring grandes écoles and universities closer together, so these two types of establishment can enrich each other.”

One outcome of strengthening local connections would be to boost entrepreneurship – with the MBAs providing the business acumen and the PhDs the technical details.

“The part I hear about is getting the technology and the knowledge out of the lab and into companies, so we do seek to facilitate entrepreneurship,” says Prof Zemsky.

“But so far our partners [in our cluster] have not particularly engaged us to train their students to be entrepreneurs. I don’t know why,” he says.

Prof Ramanantsoa says that HEC is also keen to build on local links: “I think the entrepreneurship dimension is important – being able to contribute to the creation of companies and to innovation.

“It’s a very interesting context in which to form and help in the creation of enterprises.”

Globally, there is a perception that entrepreneurship is not as alive in France as, say, the US, and that Mr Sarkozy might want to redress this.

But Mr Wauquiez is keen to dispel this: “There is a real entrepreneurship culture in France. Our biggest companies, such as L’Oréal, Accor, etc . . . were created by entrepreneurs.

Nonetheless, he concedes that “strengthening links between higher education and companies is one of the objectives of the reforms”.

Another part of Mr Wauquiez’ vision is that universities, which were once run centrally, become more autonomous, both in terms of governance and of funding: “For the first time, establishments are free to take their own destiny in hand, whereas before, the main decisions were taken from Paris,” he says.

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