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‘Our strategy is to be international…We are trying to develop more partnerships’: Sciences Po administration on expansion in India

International students constitute 50 per cent of the Paris-based public university’s strength.

Sciences Po, Alexandre Mariani, JMI, TISSWe signed a partnership with Jamia Milia Islamia as early as 2000 and the TISS in 2009, say Alexandre Mariani and Etienne Cazin from Sciences Po. (File image)

Sciences Po in Paris is a prominent French public university that offers courses in Political Science, History, Economics, Law and Sociology. International students constitute 50 per cent of its strength.

The university’s director of the Centre for Asia, Etienne Cazin, and its International Affairs Manager, Alexandre Mariani, were in India in November. They spoke to The Indian Express about the partnership with Indian institutions for dual degrees, why it’s the right time to do so “due to strategic relations” between the two countries, their concerns about global university rankings, and more. Excerpts:

What is on the agenda for your current visit to India?

Etienne: We need many universities. In our system, all students need to spend one full year abroad just before they get their bachelors, which is compulsory. In India, we currently have 13 partners and we’re trying to expand.

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Alexander: Our strategy is to be international and India is becoming a strategic partner. That is why Sciences Po as a university is trying to develop more partnerships, student exchanges, scholarships. We want to send more Sciences Po students to India.

The purpose of the trip is to make presentations to high schools who want to apply for degrees. We are also making presentations in our partner institutes for exchanges and speaking to undergraduate students who might be wanting to apply for their masters degree in Sciences Po.

Etienne: Very recently, we invited the Indian Ambassador to Paris, His Excellency, Jawed Ashraf, for lunch. We try to keep in touch with as many political people as possible because we are a university of political sciences… We were the first university in France to welcome Indian students. We have more than 300 Indian students.

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Is there a particular reason for this outreach to Indian universities?

Alexander: This is the right moment because of the strategic relations between India and France. However, it doesn’t mean we haven’t done so yet. We signed a partnership with Jamia Milia Islamia as early as 2000 and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 2009. These partnerships have seen more than a decade. We want to nurture these relationships as well.

Indian universities are opening up for dual degrees or joint degrees with foreign universities. Is this something that Sciences Po is interested in?

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Etienne: Absolutely. We don’t know exactly when and where we are going to do this new innovation in India. But some of our schools in the masters level are interested in launching some twinning programmes or even some dual degrees with Indian institutions.

Which schools in particular are these?

Etienne: I will mention two schools. One is the School of Urban Studies, which is already linked to the National Institute of Urban Affairs in Delhi. The urban school is willing to possibly have a dual degree in India. Another being the Management and Impact School. They are also interested in doing some things, maybe with an IIT in India, combining technology and business. Another one is the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA). Normally we hope the Dean of PSIA will participate with the Raisina Dialogues event taking place maybe in March or February. She is the former Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs. She is quite convinced of the opportunity of doing more with India.

Alexander: We have nine dual degrees at the undergraduate level. At the Masters level, we have over 40. One of the advantages is that French is not required for admissions. But by the end of the programme, students become bilingual.

At what stage is this? Have you communicated with the Indian government, the Education Ministry about this?

Etienne: I would say the lunch with the Indian ambassador was the first institutional step to talk about this. It’s really the start of this. We have regular, high-level exchanges between France and India and we would love to take the next opportunity of a high level visit to talk about it.

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We don’t see a lot of French institutes featuring high on different global rankings of educational institutes compared to American universities, or even those in the UK. Why do you think that’s the case?

Let’s take the Shanghai rankings, for example, which were inspired by the American model of higher education including research, teaching and an important mix of both.

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Whereas in France, research – even if excellent – is not done within the university. It’s done in the National Institute of Academic and Scientific Research. So when you rank a university in say Lille, Paris or Marseille and you try to look for research, professors, who might be doing research, won’t sign their papers with the name of the university. It’s not organized this way in France. I may be biased because I’m French, but I don’t think it’s a question of level or quality of excellence most of the time. It’s a question of organisation. And the big ones, which are ranked high now such as Sorbonne University, actually decided to include research within the university by merging the universities and asking all professors and researchers to sign with the university names. It makes them more visible in international rankings.

As for rankings, per se, we really think that we have to find new rankings now, not only based on scientific research and the number of Nobel prizes within the faculty but also, for example, on rankings based on academic freedom, sustainable development, social responsibility, gender.

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But Sciences Po has quite good rankings in Political Science. In the QS rankings, we have been ranked third in the world in political science. It will be hard to be in the global rankings because we don’t have medicine, we don’t have engineering.

Earlier this month, prominent universities like Harvard, Yale and Berkeley schools of law withdrew from the US News and World Report university rankings stating that the matrices are in conflict with their student welfare measures…

Alexander: We see that Chinese Universities, even those which created rankings, like Jiao Tong University are withdrawing from rankings. I have very mixed feelings about ranking. In our student presentation earlier today, we said if you want to apply for a university, reputation and ranking are important, but a look at content and the academic programme is equally important.

If a university is able to attract the best researchers from all over the world, it makes a difference.

Etienne: And diversity is a very good selling point. We are so proud when we have students coming from Laos, from Djibouti…It’s very good to not have only one kind of vision, one kind of culture.

From which country do you have most of your international students?

Alexander: Americans. Second are the Germans. Third are the Chinese. Fourth from either Canada or Italy. India has the second largest Asian population and they are seventh or sixth overall.

Do you see the experience of remote teaching-learning having any kind of lasting effect in the university?

Etienne: It was difficult for us like everybody. We had to try and find the best way for teachers and students to interact and also find the best way to implement our international strategy during that time. We could not do the compulsory year abroad and it was difficult to make it work through Zoom and so on. But the good thing is that we are now a lot more flexible with hybrid courses and online courses.

Did the pandemic years see a decline in international student numbers?

Alexander: Our numbers did not decrease in the end, which was actually helped by Brexit, We became more attractive to others, though I’m very sorry for our UK colleges.

Sciences Po has seen major controversies in recent years with senior university administrators stepping down as a result. What has been done to address the concerns arising out of these?

Etienne: We take this into account very strongly and different initiatives were done including putting a special judge in Sciences Po to overview all the issues of sexual harassment affairs at the university.

Students are particular about a range of issues like respect of identities and are demanding accountability. It has a positive side because it forces the institution to think about it.

First published on: 05-12-2022 at 15:21 IST
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