French Research Performance in Context

This report aims at contributing to the ongoing policy reflection on the French research
system. It is structured in two main parts, each of which seeks to answer a simple question:

  • Is the performance of the French research system satisfactory?
  • If not, why is this not the case?

The main result from part 1 is that Europe has difficulties turning knowledge into innovation and growth.
However, the problem is not that of a “transatlantic gap” between Europe and the US. The main issue within Europe is the weakness of Franco-German research performance.

The second part of this report analyses five families of hypothesis which could help explain why the French research system seems to be performing less well than it could:

  •  funding of the research system;
  • connection to the global research system;
  •  structure of the research system;
  •  human resource model;
  • autonomy, accountability and governance.

Getting to Denmark

Looking back through this report, one factor stands out: France does not trust its research intensive universities. Throughout the world, research Intensive Universities are the key hubs of the research system. They define research strategy, they host the best students, they concentrate leading researchers, they have dedicated funding mechanisms.

France, on the contrary, combines a highly stratified higher education system in which the most prestigious institutions are not the main research centres with a weakly stratified research system in which the key research actors are not universities. This leads to a paradoxical result: France ends up with both the social stratification of elitist education systems, and the disappointing research performance of low performing research systems.

In a famous paper, Land Pritchett and Michael Woolcock quipped that the problem of getting to strong, reliable, transparent public institutions could be summed up as the problem of “getting to Denmark” (2004). This image is particularly apt for the French research system: Danish, Dutch and Swiss systems of higher education are good examples of how to balance the competitive, and intrinsically elitist game of “world-class” research with the demand to provide a higher education and research system which promotes openness, inclusiveness and comprehensive social well-being. The fact that they increasingly outperform the UK and US on size-independent research indicators demonstrates that the anglo-saxon model is not necessarily the most performing one. It is time to accept that the model already exists, time to rethink the role of national research organisations, time to end the distinction between grandes écoles and universities. It is time to differentiate universities, to create excellent university colleges and polytechnics, to reinforce research intensive universities. It is time, in other words, to go to Denmark.