On August 15, the 2013 Shanghai academic ranking of world universities was published. While it may have gone unnoticed outside academic circles in many countries , the ranking triggered a controversy in France as it does every year.
The ranking includes the 500 best universities in the world. American universities are at the top of the rankings again; the first four places are taken by Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and MIT. Asian universities have made impressive progress. The first French university on the list is University Pierre and Marie Curie, also known in France as “Jussieu,” which is ranked 37th. France had a total of 20 universities included in the 500 and made slight progress compared with 2012, with 4 universities in top 100 instead of 3.
Despite these respectable results, the criteria used to generate the ranking have been the target of heavy criticism in France. The ranking only places importance on the results of academic research and does not include an evaluation of courses or of the general quality of teaching. Every university gets a grade, taking into account Nobel and Fields prizes among students or former students, publication in the scientific journals Nature and Science, and finally, the scope of the work of its researchers, evaluated by the number of times their works are quoted and referenced in Science Citation Index and Arts and Humanities Index.
Given these criteria, it is evident that universities specializing in science who are published in English-speaking journals are naturally favored. This is one of the main criticisms of the study in France, as French universities that focus on humanities are often considered to be among the best in the country. Additionally, French universities are far less open to foreign languages than those in other countries.
Another explanation for the strong French reaction against the criteria used in the study is that French research facilities are not located in universities. The most famous one, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)—the National Center for Scientific Research—is an independent center that gathers the best of French research and is often considered among the the best research centers in the world. This skews the ranking, as the criteria do not apply equally to all schools.
Geneviève Fioraso, Minister of Higher Education and Research, commented on the index to say that, “the criteria used for the Shanghai ranking are absolutely partial, but I am not saying they are biased.” She acknowledged the main criticisms, qualifying the importance of the Shanghai index. She said she was “pleased to see the progress of French universities although, contrary to the previous government, climbing in this kind of ranking is not our goal.” Fioraso added that she was more interested in “the students’ success, in introducing courses in English to attract foreign students, [and] in encouraging European partnerships.”
It seems obvious that Fioraso, along with other French politicians or major academic figures, is trying to minimize the importance of the Shanghai index. Nevertheless, one question remains: if this index has become so popular, does it influence students’ choices? It is an essential question that has remained unanswered through the extensive media coverage of the Shanghai index.