French super-university wants to be among the top 10
In farm fields south of Paris, billions of euros are being ploughed into a new modern university campus designed to rival Harvard, MIT and Cambridge as one of the world's best.
The Paris-Saclay super-campus is France's answer to years of decline in higher education, with the result that the nation's best university only ranks 40th in the world.
France, a country that builds state-of-the-art nuclear reactors, super-fast trains and boasts cutting-edge aerospace, now wants to show off its brain power in scientific research and learning.
"Our goal is to rank among the top 10 universities in the world," said Herve Le Riche, who heads the 4.4-billion-euro project (5.9 billion dollars) in Saclay, a plateau of grain fields dotted with clusters of modern buildings.
Already home to some top-notch colleges such as the Polytechnique engineering school, the new campus will start opening its doors in 2015 as a grouping of 23 universities, colleges and research institutes.
New laboratories, amphitheatres, student housing along with shops and transport will be built with a view to making France a destination for some of the best and brightest who now head to US and British universities.
Many French elite colleges produce crackerjack scientists, engineers and managers, but they are often too small to sustain cutting-edge research programmes that wealthy American universities are known for.
Paris-Saclay aims to combine academic training with research from high-performance institutes like the CEA nuclear agency, while tapping into the innovation from big industry names like Thales, a European leader in aerospace.
-- Sarkozy, the main backer --
The ambitious project enjoys the backing of one key figure: President Nicolas Sarkozy whose government is digging deep into its pockets to make the dream of a world-class university a reality.
Sarkozy got the academic world talking when he announced that one billion euros of his 35-billion-euro national loan programme would go to Paris-Saclay.
That's on top of 850 million euros earmarked for the project under his government's university reform programme.
During a recent visit to New York's Columbia University, Sarkozy heaped praise on "this magnificient place" and remarked that he wanted to "reform French universities based on the model that you have here."
France fares poorly in the world universities ranking compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Paris VI Pierre and Marie Curie University is the top rated French university, coming in at number 40 in the 2009 ranking.
Only two universities in Europe are among the top 10: Britain's Cambridge and Oxford. Harvard tops the list and eight of the top 10 are in the United States.
France has only three universities ranked among the world's top 100.
"We are not going to draw Chinese and Korean students with small schools that take in 80 students," said Cedric Dufour, who heads a students' association backing the Paris-Saclay project.
Dufour said the concept of engineering schools cooperating with research institutes, companies and universities marks a sea change for France where academia has traditionally been divided.
"It's the first time that the French government has put forward that level of resources in a project. We have the skills to do something that is really high performance," said Dufour, a 23-year-old student at the AgroParis Tech school of environment and earth sciences.
-- Combined brain power --
If the various institutes, colleges and universities do succeed in coming together, the combined brain power will be impressive.
The 2007 Nobel Prize winner in physics, Albert Fert, already claims Paris-Saclay as his home.
The 62-year-old physicist who discovered giant magnetoresistance teaches at Paris-sud university and heads a laboratory of the CNRS national research council and the Thales group.
There is also the IHES Institute of Higher Studies in Science which has produced on its own 11 of the total 44 winners of the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize for mathematics.
The Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC) business management school, which ranks as the best in Europe according to The Financial Times, is also nearby along with the Supelec school of electrical and computer engineers.
Nine universities, colleges and institutes ares scheduled to move to the new campus, located some 25 kilometres (15 miles) southwest of Paris by 2020.
When it is fully up and running in 10 years' time, Paris-Saclay will welcome more than 31,000 students and 12,000 full-time researchers.
"We are building the university of the 21st century. That's really what's at stake," said Le Riche.
© 2010 AFP