Let’s unite to create the university of the future


Alain Fuchs, President of PSL (Université Paris Sciences & Lettres), revisits the challenges of building up PSL at a time when Higher Education and Research are being restructured in France and abroad.

Alain Fuchs Nouveau président de PSL

In many scientifically and culturally developed countries, Higher Education and Research have been undergoing radical reorganization. The leading scientific powers that dominated science and technology in the 20th Century (North America, Europe, Japan and Russia) are now having to adapt to the impact of globalization and the rapidly escalating power of relative newcomers such as China, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan etc. Institutions responsible for organizing higher education and research (ESR) have been assigned the task of expanding their scientific base as a source of innovation and economic well-being, and at the same time concerning themselves with major global challenges such as climate change, energy transition, ageing populations and more. The past decade or two have seen radical changes in the vision for higher education and scientific research, which have previously been identified primarily as vehicles for transmitting and furthering knowledge. ESR is under increasing pressure to deliver still more, although the hierarchy of priorities is neither being clarified nor understood.

Many countries have come to believe that, by thoroughly revamping their system of higher education so that each institution has a distinct mission and only a select few institutions or sites can focus on academic excellence, they can more effectively fulfill their expanded remit.
By next spring, a number of large-scale projects, including PSL, should be relaunching the global dynamic by winning IDEX (Initiative d’Excellence) state funding. My belief is that the scientific potential of Paris, as manifested in a number of fine universities, is comparable with that of London or Boston.

PSL exists. It trains excellent students selected by its various institutions, and awards degrees. Its cumulative output in the fields of science and technology, the arts, the humanities and heritage conservation is of a very high standard. It therefore would appear to possess all the attributes of a world-ranking 21st Century university. Almost all! What is it missing? In the main, heightened national and international visibility and credibility as an autonomous university. Significant effort has been made in this direction, and in 2017, PSL put in its first appearance in the Times Higher Education (THE) ratings.

We know what we need to do to build up our university. Each of our institutions is a disciplinary - often a multi-disciplinary - gem. Together we undertake a vast range of training, research and artistic production. This sets us entirely apart in the French context, and puts PSL on a level with a number of great foreign institutions that have for many years included the arts and artistic creation in their curriculum. The age of our institutions and their reputation for excellence, the quality of our students and the renown of our educators and researchers all combine to create a great university: their interwoven stories and individual identities contribute greatly to the richness of PSL.

Each individual institution is fully aware that it can neither meet the challenges of globalization on its own, nor fulfil the many new demands emerging in its local environment without allying itself with other institutions sharing the same culture.

This is the direction we are taking to build up PSL, along the lines of sovereignty shared between PSL - the public institution / common structure - and the institutions comprising the university as a whole. A visible, credible PSL will only become a reality in the long term if a common culture emerges, accompanied by a feeling of belonging to one and the same community.

This is a serious matter, and there is considerable scope for improvement. Within our educator-researcher, researcher, technical, administrative and (of course) student communities, increasing numbers are buying into the PSL project. This spirit of community is being fostered by group events and measures with a strongly symbolic aspect. More needs to be done, though, to develop the movement further, and it is vital that PSL be identified as encouraging and enabling strong cross-institution projects. Here, too, we can already identify some existing high quality projects with strong potential: the IRIS projects, joint Masters degrees such as that in Transnational History, the CPES, the noteworthy SACRe and ITI doctorates and many others. This is the way forward.

It is clear that the future of PSL is dependent on the period from September 2017 to February 2018 and the defense of the project before the IDEX jury in March. We must make every effort to succeed in our IDEX bid; the jury seems to be setting the bar fairly high when it comes to institutional integration. We will need the support of the entire PSL community in the next few months, which will play a decisive role in the success of our university. We have a great responsibility resting on our shoulders.

You have done me the honor of electing me to head PSL and bring this project to a successful conclusion. You may rest assured that my commitment to doing so is total.

Alain Fuchs, President of PSL