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France Picks Five More University Groups for Major Investment

PARIS—French Prime Minister François Fillon today announced that five more conglomerates of universities and other institutes will receive a massive capital injection aimed at catapulting them into the international academic elite. The announcement brings to eight the total number of winners in the investment scheme, which aims to boost France's dismal performance in the Shanghai ranking and other academic hit parades.

The five new winners in the Excellence Initiative (Idex) are Aix-Marseille, Paris-Saclay, Sorbonne Université, Sorbonne Paris Cité, and Toulouse. They join Bordeaux, Strasbourg, and Paris Sciences et Lettres, which were selected last July in the first stage of the flagship project.

The eight will share grants of €7.7 billion—which each will use in different ways to boost its competitiveness. The idea is that some or all of the partners in each conglomerate will eventually merge into big research universities that can rival those elsewhere in Europe and the United States. The money is part of the €35 billion Investments for the Future program -- also known as the Big Loan, because the money was raised on the financial markets—launched in 2010 to help spur the economy in the wake of the financial and economic crisis.

Creating an avant-garde of five to 10 major universities able to attract the best researchers and students has been a key target of the French government's science and higher education policy. The plan—controversial because it puts an end to an egalitarian tradition in higher education—predated the economic crisis but was given an extra impetus by the Investments for the Future program.

Three notable losers in Idex are Grenoble, Lyons, and Montpellier, says biochemist Patrick Monfort, the general secretary of SNCS-FSU, a French research union. Grenoble is recognized internationally for its research in microelectronics and nontechnology, Lyons has a reputation in the life and health sciences, and Montpellier excels in environmental and agricultural science. "It's a huge waste to sideline three major scientific universities," says Monfort. "We have always been against the principle of competition among institutions and individuals. The government has tripped over its own feet."

The Idex jury was chaired by Jean-Marc Rapp, president of the European University Association and former rector of the University of Lausanne, and includes French Harvard University economist Philippe Aghion. There were four main criteria, the Higher Education and Research Ministry says in a statement: excellence in research, training and capacity to innovate, national and international partnerships, and management ability to implement the plan.

In total, the Investments for the Future program allocates €21.9 billion for research and technology. Besides Idex, there are grants for specific laboratory projects, expensive equipment, research and teaching hospitals, campus renovation, and technology transfer. All of them are awarded by international juries.