x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sorbonne is 'a big test' for French universities

The Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi needs to succeed so French education can continue to grow abroad.

Prof Xavier Galmiche says it is essential for the region to have an alternative to the Anglo-Saxon model of higher education.
Prof Xavier Galmiche says it is essential for the region to have an alternative to the Anglo-Saxon model of higher education.

ABU DHABI // The Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi needs to succeed so French education can continue to grow abroad, the university's new academic director has said. Prof Xavier Galmiche, who took up his post last month, said failure here would show other universities that establishing a campus outside of France could prove a struggle. While opening a university in the UAE that offers classes taught in French was "a difficult project", Prof Galmiche said the region should be offered an alternative as most western university branches in the UAE originated from Britain, the US and Australia.

"It's absolutely necessary for these types of countries to have a counter-example from the West - not only America and not only the Anglo-Saxon world," Prof Galmiche said. "We're the alternative model and we have to play this role." He added the UAE was a good test for establishing a French campus outside France. "If we are not able to achieve that here we never will, because we have such good material circumstances here that we have to succeed," he said.

"It's a big test for our university and for French universities. If we don't achieve that, it's a bad signal for the internationalisation of French universities." The Paris-based Sorbonne, which is 750 years old, opened the Abu Dhabi branch in temporary facilities in 2006. A permanent campus being built on Reem Island, and funded by Abu Dhabi, is due to open late next year. Student recruitment has so far been modest, with 235 students enrolling in bachelor's degrees in subjects such as history, geography, art history and philosophy. There are several dozen students earning master's degrees, and 119 on the French-language programme.

Prof Galmiche said since recruiting students had been difficult, the university should not be too ambitious in growth plans. While the campus being built will have space for 1,500, Prof Galmiche said he would "prefer a good university with an average number of 500 students" if this meant standards were maintained. "We should not grow too much. We have to be a selective model," he said, adding that the university should avoid becoming predominantly a French-language school.

"I'm here to defend the purely academic branches and mainly the very difficult ones," he said. "We have difficulty in recruiting in philosophy and history because they're very serious and difficult, but we have to be eclectic." The Sorbonne has faced many challenges in the UAE not experienced in France. Recruiting students, for example, was a task in which the administration had little experience, Prof Galmiche said.

"I just waited and they came or they didn't," he said. "For a French academic, this is a great schooling in how to manage a university. I'm very excited." Prof Galmiche said students here were more motivated than those in Paris, where government rules prevent the university from the strict academic selection criteria applied here. The students in Abu Dhabi also perform much better in examinations than those in Paris, where almost three-quarters fail in their first year. However, Prof Galmiche was concerned that some exams set locally might not be as tough as those taken by students in France. For other exams, papers are marked in Paris so the standards are the same.

Prof Galmiche, 45, is a specialist in Czech literature who founded a central European research institute within the Sorbonne. He has written three books and dozens of academic papers, and has lived in Hungary and what is now the Czech Republic. dbardsley@thenational.ae