23 February 2012

On Sciences-Po

Lately a large number of articles have arisen in the French press to discuss the policies of one of France's most prestigious higher education organisations : Sciences-Po (IEP Paris).

For those that don't know much about this college, suffice to say it is a highly competitive organisation, founded in the late 19th century. It focused initially on political education, administration and what one might call "civic humanities". The explicit goal of the institution was to breed a new generation of governors and administrators that would help France reclaim a position of power in Europe, at a time when Great Britain and Germany were considered to be serious menaces to French ambitions. This policy was barely changed until the 1990s, despite some broadening of scope to include public finance, sociology, foreign languages as well as a small research department. Despite a limited number of students (around 1,000 in total), Sciences-Po provided massive numbers of successful candidates to the ENA (National School of Administrators), which is the fast-track to reach high-responsibility positions in the French civil service. A testament to the college's success is that since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1959, there have only been 8 years (1962-68, 1972-74) when neither the French President nor the French Prime Minister had attended Sciences-Po.
Since the 1990s, however, the school has been urged to reform, largely under the pressure of greater student mobility between top colleges worldwide, but also in order to remain a prominent institution in France and Europe 1 .

When Richard Descoings was appointed in 1996, reforming the institution was a central point of his project. The college was judged "too small", "not sufficiently international", "too limited in scope", and perhaps most damningly of all "a prep school to the ENA". His ambition was to establish Sciences-Po as the European Harvard : a school centred around administration (business and civil) and social sciences, but where students would also be cultured and have a broad scope of knowledge outside their field of studies.
In order to do so, he has implemented over the past 15 years a policy of increasing student numbers, increasing research staff, developing international partnerships, lengthening courses and developing new subjects and programs. The efforts undertaken have been great, and in many respects the college today has no link to the institution that existed prior to the 1980s.

Recently, dissenting voices have raised difficult points regarding Sciences-Po's administration, objectives and the manners undertaken. Started in the early 2000s, the policy of partnerships with high schools in underprivileged areas has always been contested as going against the republican ideals of equality of chances. The reform of the entrance procedure that will be implemented in 2013, in particular the removal of the General Knowledge exam, has lead certain commentators to believe the school is lowering its level. Furthermore, the revelation of Mr Descoings' salary and bonuses, as well as the composition of the school's budget is creating a certain amount of unease regarding the institution's stability. With the lengthening of courses and the growth of the research departments, there is also the emerging topic of evaluating these courses, selecting teachers to adequately staff them, and at the same time strengthen the bridges between education and research.

The institution's response was predictable, mainly downplaying the importance of the reforms and making arguments from the position of authority the school itself grants the authors. Whilst the college is clearly not in immediate peril, the situation is not as rosy as it would like to paint it, and deserves serious consideration. Many of the changes undertaken are being defended with clumsy arguments, and dissenting voices are being silenced without regards to the points they are making. If Sciences-Po wants to deeply reform itself, it must be open with regards to its success in these reforms, and also accept discussion about what these reforms mean for other aspects of the school.

The rapid increase in student numbers

A first point to consider is that the educational environment that Sciences-Po projects is no longer what the students live. 
Until the 1990s, a graduation class was between 200 and 300 students, which meant that students with similar interests were able to quickly get to know each other, participate in projects together, and select the specific training they wished to pursue. Teachers, with groups of 20-30 students a semester, would still be able to reach a significant proportion of students, meaning that only 3 or 4 good teachers were required for each subject. With 14 2  two-hour sessions per semester, there was enough time to develop subjects in-depth, and for each student to engage in constructive debate with the teacher or other students.
Today, with a graduation class of 1,300 to 1,500 students, students that know even a quarter of the promotion are a rarity 3 , and with this comes a rapid decrease in chances of meaningfully engaging with people that share the same interests. Classes are something of a pot luck selection, where students often have to settle for subjects they aren't the most interested in because those that interest them were full within minutes of the course registration tool being activated. Likewise, more students has lead to a need for more teachers to tutor the small groups 4 . The sheer fact of finding teachers that are not only competent in their subject, but also good educators on such short notice has lead to a somewhat more variable quality in the teaching. Whilst the teachers remain excellent, the fact that many of them have only taught for two or three years, are not trained educators, nor research specialists in their field but rather professors means it can be sometimes harder for students to gain the necessary tools to engage the subject in a meaningful manner. In the same time, Sciences-Po has reduced course hours to 12 two-hour sessions per semester for "full credit" courses, 6 two-hour sessions for "half credit" courses, and in some rare cases as little as 3 two-hour sessions 5 ...

The rapid growth of student numbers at Sciences-Po is a very real problem the school needs to face. It is investing heavily to expand its current campus, but the reforms need to be much deeper than simply purchasing more classrooms.
The library, touted until a dozen years ago as a genuine jewel that enabled students to have access to the largest collection of social sciences literature in continental Europe, is woefully in-adapted to the current number of students. Even with the opening of the new library, the entire experience is Byzantine. Fewer and fewer books are on display, because of the need to increase study space, but that study space is still so small most students abandon the idea of using the library after 1 or 2 semesters. One could further digress on the experience of loaning a book, it would only reinforce the fact that the library is no longer a jewel but rather a thorn in Sciences-Po's crown.
Teacher vetting and course construction need to be improved. Far too many teachers ignore what the students are learning in other courses, and the notion of prerequisite courses is conspicuously absent. Asking non-educators to intervene is in many respects a refreshing proposition, one that enables students to have a different perspective on a topic. Sadly, not everybody is a good teacher. It can be because of various reasons, but the system of "checks and balances" 6  is flawed, since it does not address the level at which the course is taught. It is a system that rewards teachers that gently nudge their students forwards, but punishes those that push their students hard. However, Sciences-Po's concern should be the quality of training they wish the students to acquire rather than the ease with which the students and teacher achieve that level of quality.
Another point to address is how Sciences-Po identifies students that are under-performing. The current system is a mix of end-of-term exams and in-course tests. In most cases, the in-course tests rely strongly on group work, with only a minor part of individual submissions. This means that students who lack motivation or work ethic can let themselves be carried throughout many of the courses on the work of other students in their group work. If all the students knew each other, these students that don't work would be identifiable by seeing that other students avoid them for group projects and subsequently they would perform poorly in these tests. However, given that students don't know most other students they are in each course with, they either repeatedly partner with the same people whom they had a decent group project before, or they attempt to make face value judgements. In both cases, this makes it much harder for under-performing students to be identified, and can lead to not only discouragement on behalf of other students in that group, but also allowing students that have not acquired sufficient knowledge of the subject to pass the course.
A final point I would like to mention here is that the rapid internationalization of the student body poses genuine concerns. Today, 40% of all students are admitted through exchange or international study programs. Per se, this is a wonderful opportunity for expanding students' cultural horizons, bringing new voices to the table and opening the path for deeper, more genuine, international understanding. In practice though, certain exchange students do not have good command of French (which is still the primary instruction language), lack expected knowledge for courses they follow, or are restricted to a limited battery of courses, and thus have limited opportunities for socializing with the larger student body. Currently, the institution still acts as though foreign students were not only a rarity, but a group that also had proficient command of French and shared the knowledge expected of other students. Whilst this was likely the right position to hold in the early days of Sciences-Po's internationalization, when it attracted a small number of students that were highly competent and had prepared their exchange, this position needs to be reformed to take act of the current situation.

The diversification of courses

Although Sciences-Po has the nickname "ante-chamber to the ENA", today that name is no longer justified. Only around a quarter of each graduating year attempts the ENA entrance exam, with far more students pursuing business careers. It has reached a point that even the name is something of a misnomer : Sciences-Po graduates only rarely enjoy careers in politics or political sciences research positions. Even spreading large and including social sciences and administrative functions, half of each graduating class at most would fall into the scope of "political sciences".
Sciences-Po's current course composition is roughly one third business-oriented (finance, strategy, marketing, communications, human resources), one third administration-oriented (international/European/public policy, urbanisation, territorial management), and one third of other or hybrid courses (journalism, law, corporate and public management, arts and politics). Given that Sciences-Po has clearly designated HEC and Dauphine 7  as its main rivals, it seems likely that the importance of business-oriented courses and hybrid business-public administration courses will increase in the coming years.

Beyond the name, however, Sciences-Po needs to identify what these courses are intended to lead to, and solidify them in order to achieve these objectives. Certain courses have already been consolidated, mainly through the effect of time, but the multiplication of courses, the vague objectives these courses are given and the lack of objective measure of quality risks to dog how certain graduates' degrees are perceived. Sciences-Po's objective of rising into the very small group of ultra-elite educational institutions will not be possible as long as graduates are incapable of articulating the purpose of their degree, and school administrators so vague regarding the course that it can excuse any student's lack of knowledge on a given topic.
Inviting professionals and non-educators to teach classes is very interesting in this respect, because although it can provide opportunities for students to be shown a different perspective, it often comes with the downside that the class is something of an outlier to the course. Courses need large amounts of coordination between teachers to provide a coherent increase in level, one that does not neglect any facet of the subject being approached, nor relies on topics that have not yet been addressed. At the same time, educators teaching fundamental aspects of these courses need to be able to delve into the specifics that justify them, with great precision and attention to detail. Sadly, these are difficult conditions for people who have another full-time activity to fulfil. Sciences-Po's current core team of teachers is insufficient, and despite increasing over the past decade, it has not increased as fast as the number of students. Furthermore, to develop a coherent course, teachers and administrators need to proceed in an almost iterative manner, identifying successes and finding how to replicate them, whilst eliminating failures. The current administration's policy regarding the rotation of teachers and administrators is actively preventing this from occurring. Courses are given three, four semesters to prove their worth, and then are hit by changes. There is no notion of course stability, with a clearly referenced list of courses from one year to the next, nor any way for students (current or prospective) to see which courses develop which notions.
A further problem is the lack of interaction between research departments and students. In my entire time as a student at Sciences-Po, I believe I only had one class that was taught by a person doing research. I had other classes that were taught by people with Ph.D.s or Doctorates, but they were also rare. Although it might be different for other students, I genuinely never felt during my studies that I was in direct contact with cutting-edge research in the field. The organisation of research is by definition difficult, since it requires extremely in-depth vision of topics, and great responsiveness to changes in that topic. However, for a school that has set its aim on being one of the best in the world, Sciences-Po's efforts remain underwhelming.

If Sciences-Po wishes to become a highly-recognised educational institution, it needs to offer a clear vision as to what each course leads to. Courses should be given years to find the "working formula", and the teachers should be the one determining which courses provide education in which notions. Research staff needs to be given increased opportunities to interact with students, and the proportion of full-time teaching staff also needs to be increased.
This seems difficult without a deep re-evaluation of the required notions for various courses, and perhaps a certain degree of specialisation in the early stages of a students' time at Sciences-Po. However, as it stands, I fear that the specificity of Sciences-Po versus HEC or Dauphine be diluted, and the idea that Sciences-Po only prepares for civil service survives. Without a clear vision of what the needs both public and private organisations will have in the coming decades, Sciences-Po will gradually become a mish-mash of degrees that bear little to no meaning in either domain. The current administration should fight against this, and make clear their vision of the needs in both spheres.

The development of research

In many respects, social sciences research is a tricky question. Authoritative journals are rare, ground-breaking papers non-existent, and the contours of each topic always susceptible to change. Unlike "hard sciences", the softer sciences exist in a sort of limbo where facts are open to dispute, and peer evaluation is perceived as the only evaluation possible.
Sciences-Po further suffers from several difficulties it has but no choice than to accept : the French language has receded in scientific matters, and therefore is no longer the language of the most important publications in any field, as a recently-developed centre, it has little history of publications to build upon, as well as a history of training actors rather than analysts of public policy.

Nonetheless, the arguments put forth to defend Sciences-Po's research credentials are suspect at best, if not outright dishonest. The institution points out that it has over 250 full-time research employees 8... Out of over 3500 teachers. Even then, the evaluation of these research employees is based on... The opinion of other research employees in the same field9.
Sciences-Po has undertaken a long-term commitment to research, and it is likely that the effects of this commitment will only be visible in 20 or 30 years. However, it seems disingenuous of the administration entrust the organisation of research to people whose abilities have been deeply compromised such as Prof. Latour. Indeed, the administration's main claim to improving research is based not on quality of output or availability of means, but on increase of quantity 10. The research departments boast of prizes received that sound brilliant at first, but that further research shows are not as meaningful as intended. Certainly a research department that is on a solid path, with clear research objectives and direction would be able to find more meaningful metrics of progress? Sciences-Po's publishing efforts are still extremely difficult to understand, with most of the research department's work being published elsewhere 11.
There seems to be real evidence that the research department is improving in quality year on year. Yet the energy depleted to defend the research departments' credentials at such speed and with such ferocity is liable to raise a doubt in one's mind. If the research department is really improving, producing insightful work in an innovative manner on novel topics, then defending it in the media seems to be but a secondary concern. Facts speak for themselves. The institution's haste to push reports with inflated rankings 12 is disingenuous as it smothers any chance for debate. If Sciences-Po wishes to be the European Harvard, it must accept open discussion regarding its research, and let the research prove its worth by itself.

As Sciences-Po develops its research departments, it should consider broader interaction between research and education, including outside of the "research masters". There should also be a genuine answer to the question how legitimate the institution will be in the long term teaching business-related topics, yet lacking a business-oriented research department.
The improvements brought to the research facilities are certainly a wise long-term investment for the school, and they need to be given the best conditions of success. The current organisation is complicated and often unclear, with five administrative departments tasked with linking research and education, eleven quasi-autonomous research departments, seven 13 "chaires" tasked with fostering international as well as public-private cooperation, three 14 international research partnerships and a research methods department. Add on top of that the coming partnership with other Paris universities as part of the IdEX project to which Sciences-Po has committed providing for an autonomous cross-topic research group, and it's not quite clear what vision the current administration has regarding research. This vision might already exist, but if so it needs to be articulated with much greater care and strength, in order to avoid a dispersion of efforts without clear goals.
Regarding the internationalization of the school, the research facilities also have a part to play. Language of publication is certainly a very real issue for Sciences-Po's identity, but also the composition of research staff. A school that boasts 40% of its students being "international" can hardly escape the question of what proportion of its research and teaching staff are also "international". The institution has taken great steps to broaden the scope of research outside of France, and in this respect is perhaps ahead of the curve other universities are on.

The budget issue

Without looking specifically at Richard Descoings' wages, bonuses or other benefits, the question of how the school manages its funds is salutary. It reveals a deep change relative to the 1980s, and must open a debate regarding their sources and their use.
Sciences-Po is funded mainly through state donations, even though their weight in the institution's overall budget is decreasing 15. At the same time, the policy of increasing student numbers, developing research activities and international partnerships has lead to a significant increase in the overall budget. Since the 1980s, the school has regularly increased tuition fees, but many questions remain as to the validity and purpose of these increases.

Tuition fees in France are a particularly difficult subject. Universities have a very limited tuition fee that is designed to promote higher education in all the social strata, much in the same way that anybody who has achieved the Baccalauréat is allowed to register for courses in state universities. Grande Ecoles 16, due to the fact they were often created in order to certify students who would then go on to fill civil service or military positions are often also financed by the state. Sciences-Po's state donation was established because the school's ambition was to provide high-quality civil servants and politicians. Now that only a third of students follow this ambition, it seems more complex for the institution to request more funding from the state. At the same time, tuition fees in France have never been high since there was never a significant development of grants and student loans. As such, Sciences-Po's rising costs are a very real concern for students, in particular those from the middle class who are not covered by state grant provisions. The administration has taken the welcome position of establishing different tuition fees based on the students' household tax returns. The creation of a Foundation to collect funds will improve the school's financial autonomy, but is a long-term project that will need to convince alumni of the validity and strength of the education the college provides.
The school points at the successful insertion of graduates into professional life as a justification of the tuition fees. However, it seems somewhat premature to judge the quality of education received after as little as a few years. By conservative terms, it will be by looking at students 20 years after they graduate that one will have an idea of how well the college prepared them for their professional pursuits. That is the time-frame that Sciences-Po should keep in mind when considering the professional insertion and success of their students. Although examples of graduates who had outstanding careers in business management are not the rarest thing at Sciences-Po, many of the examples have caveats such as the fact that the business was state-owned at the time of appointment, or that the ties between politics and business are sufficiently important in the sector for the graduate's success to not be merely down to his ability to manage the business. Some genuine "success stories" exist, but they are quite rare, too rare for the school to be able to extrapolate from that small group of individuals a general rule regarding students' careers. Furthermore, with the changes in courses that have happened since the 1990s, such a position obfuscates the reality of what students today are being provided in terms of training and opportunities.
The administration also points out that "competing" colleges are just as expensive in France, if not much dearer abroad. This is a valid point, but one that cannot alone justify the school's policy. Indeed, if Sciences-Po holds so dearly to this comparison, one can just as well point out that other Grande Ecoles have much lower attendance rates of foreign students, whilst abroad most competing colleges do not depend on state funding to meet their annual budget.

Sciences-Po should encourage students who are undertaking business studies to bear a greater "burden" of the costs of the school, and assist them in finding secure, long-term funding to this effect. Public policy students should be the main beneficiaries of state funds, as they are the ones the funding is intended for. Foreign students' tuition fees are already quite high, but it is appropriate for the administration to consider raising them, although doing so would be most appropriate if the amount of support the student benefits from as well as the type of courses followed are taken into account.
Furthermore, Sciences-Po should try to "increase" the value it brings to students and graduates. Membership to the alumni association, which currently requires an annual membership fee, should be made free and automatic for all graduates. This would enable the school to have better communication with graduates in order to hasten the funding of the Foundation, but also provide for larger graduating years to maintain a degree of cohesiveness. Greater interaction with researchers during courses and work with the students to define clearly their personal professional objectives could be interesting ways for the college to demonstrate its purpose and specificities.

As an institution, Sciences-Po has undertaken a revolution in the past 16 years. So much that it is almost worthy of a new name to break with traditional ideas and pre-conceived notions surrounding it. However, this revolution is not complete. The debates that have recently arisen are in some respect merely necessary discussions regarding the path taken towards the new objective, but some are more fundamental and question the school's vision of that objective. The current administration needs to lay out with even greater clarity than before their vision for the college, and this beyond mere statements of ambition in the vein of "a European Harvard". There needs to be a clear, cohesive and strong view on what in fine Sciences-Po will do. This vision needs to be broad, including research, internationalization and course definition, but also precise enough to address the consequences of the large number of students, teacher qualification, as well as funding objectives. The institution's participation to the discussions that have been raised over the past months has almost always been defensive, lacking vision, misleading and more concerned with style over substance. This is not what Sciences-Po was founded to do, and I hope it is not representative of the vision the current administration has.

1 : The perceived risks were that the mandatory L-M-D system the EU was setting up would "lessen" Sciences-Po's prestige, and that the rise of business schools such as HEC would end up draining top talent that would previously have attended Sciences-Po. Furthermore, the state's decision to reduce the number of civil servants, as well as the privatization of state-owned businesses meant there was greater uncertainty regarding the opportunities for "purely political" students. Budgetary concerns also contributed, but in a less pressing manner.
2 : I do believe it was 14, although I have read in certain reports that it was 16.
3 : In absolute terms, this isn't a problem. Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge... Many high-level institutions have thousands of students in each graduating class. However, they are organised in a different manner, with more focused undergraduate courses, fewer hours of class presence, and greater focus on students' extra-curricular activities.
4 : Groups have risen to 30-35 students per teacher.
5 : I say rare, but in 5 semesters at Sciences-Po, I attended 4 such courses. 
6 : Sciences-Po asks students to "rate" the teacher on various criteria at the end of the course, and likewise asks the teacher to share their opinion on the students. Prima facie this system is efficient, since it can identify teachers that are unclear, unstructured, difficult to engage with, and still give teachers the opinion to point out students that are not doing the required work, that are not participating constructively in class, or that are eager but lack knowledge of fundamental notions. 
 7 : HEC (Hautes Etudes Commerciales) and Université Paris-11 Dauphine are institutions that focus on business management and economics.
9 : Auto-evaluation in any field is positive, except when there is no ability for external evaluation of such a field. Physicists and mathematicians evaluate the "quality" of physics and mathematics research undertaken by any given university. However, there remains the ability for people outside of these fields to identify important breakthroughs in these fields. In social sciences, such breakthroughs are much rarer, if inexistant. As such, there is a very real risk of a self-confirming loop emerging.
10 : Richard Descoings and his staff seem to equate "more research staff" with "better research".
11 : It is somewhat interesting in this respect to note that -none- of the prizes Sciences-Po's research department boasts of are for individual works published by Sciences-Po. Whilst this could certainly be a policy on the school's behalf, there is no explicit mention as such.
12 : For instance, the AERES report that awarded Sciences-Po five "A+" grades and one "A" for the six research departments. It seems unclear if the report is commenting on the structure and organisation, the actual research produced, or other aspects such as the committed budget. Likewise, the meaning of these grades is unclear; how many institutions world-wide would achieve the "A+" ranking, and what does this denote in terms of research achievements to come?
13 : Three permanent and four temporary.
14 : Three clearly identified partnerships, although there are also "research exchanges" which are partnerships in all but the name.
15 : In 2000, state funds provided for 73% of the school's budget, and "only" 55% of the budget in 2011.
16 : Literally, Great Schools. These highly-selective courses were designed to train students for particular purposes. The first such schools were established to provide military and civil engineering training for students who would then serve the state or fill particularly dangerous positions. 

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