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French universities step up participation in ERA

French universities want to play an active role in the creation of the European Research and Higher Education Area and are doing all that they can to support this process, says Yannick Vallée, First Vice-President of the French Conference of University Presidents (CPU). On ...

French universities want to play an active role in the creation of the European Research and Higher Education Area and are doing all that they can to support this process, says Yannick Vallée, First Vice-President of the French Conference of University Presidents (CPU). On a visit to Brussels on 11 October, Mr Vallée spoke to CORDIS News about how his organisation is helping to raise the profile of French universities in Europe, as well as his thoughts on some recent developments in European research policy. Established in 1971, the CPU brings together presidents from 80 universities in France who exchange information and practices. The organisation addresses the responsibilities of universities, including research, teaching, studies, advanced continuing education and training, and knowledge and technology transfer. It also seeks to foster opportunities for cooperation at a European and international level. 'We try to stay informed about what is going on in European research and higher education policy and to encourage our members to participate in a maximum of actions at European level,' said Mr Vallée. 'Our role is to inform universities about the opportunities available to them and organise national contact points on certain areas of interest.' According to Mr Vallée, French universities are very enthusiastic about working in Europe and do not need that much encouragement to come on board. 'French universities feel very integrated and a part of the ERA,' he said. He pointed to the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), where he said French universities, particularly the larger ones, have performed very well and have succeeded in winning many research project contracts. 'But there is a visibility problem,' he added. 'French research comprises very large influential national research laboratories such as the French national centre for scientific research (CNRS) which partners with smaller universities on projects. When a project call is won, it is usually the lab that gets the credit, not the university,' said Mr Vallée. 'This is very different to other countries in Europe, such as the UK, where there are several very large universities which are very visible. Although there are also a lot of big public research institutes there, they don't have as much weight as those in France.' This would go some way to explaining the difficulty in collating statistics on French universities' participation in the research framework programmes. To overcome this problem of visibility and create a level playing field, Mr Vallée said that more and more French universities are setting up European offices in order to better familiarise themselves with the mechanisms of European research and higher education programmes. In addition to their participation in European research projects, French universities are also supporting the drive to improve the working conditions and mobility of researchers. In October 2005, the CPU was the first French organisation to sign the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct, agreeing to the recommendations made and committing universities to take account of these recommendations within their independent fields of operation. While the Charter for Researchers addresses the roles, responsibilities and entitlements of researchers and their employers or funding organisations, the Code of Conduct aims to improve recruitment, to make selection procedures fairer and more transparent, and proposes different means for judging merit. 'Individual universities are now starting to sign the two documents, which means in addition to improving researchers' working conditions, they are committed to opening their organisations up, ensuring greater mobility of researchers,' said Mr Vallée. 'This is an important step for French universities, which have in the past tended to recruit French researchers.' In order to further attract much-needed brains to French university research units, the CPU is supporting the development of a national student/researcher mobility portal in French and English, and prompting a debate about the possibility of teaching some university programmes partially in English. 'If France wants to retain its influential position in the world, it needs to attract students and researchers from abroad. It's much easier to pass this message to the outside world, say to China, through English,' argued Mr Vallée. French universities are also seeking to increase the exchange of ideas and resources with third countries with which France has a shared history, such as Morocco, Tunisia and other North African nations. 'We are talking with the Research-Directorate General about the instruments available through which we, along with other European countries, can better collaborate with these countries,' said Mr Vallée. He went onto say that work is already underway among French universities to help their Moroccan counterparts adapt their education system in accordance with the Bologna process, particularly with regard to putting in place graduate education programmes. As for the future of research policy in Europe, Mr Vallée said his organisation was heartened to see more money being dedicated to fundamental research under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), and by the decision to establish the European Research Council - an instrument which European universities consider crucial for the further development of their research. 'This is the first time in the framework programme where the main criteria will be research excellence not the number of countries participating,' he pointed out. However, the proposed European Institute of Technology (EIT) received a less than enthusiastic reception from European universities at first. 'We were worried that it would be just another big new university,' said Mr Vallée, who said that Europe should not try to replicate the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 'MIT is not born out of thin air it has a long history and the EIT will not gain the same ground as the MIT just because it is new,' he said. Since the first consultation with stakeholders, the Commission has further clarified the scope EIT, saying that it will focus on developing 'Knowledge Communities' based on the critical mass which already exists in Europe. 'If we are talking more about a network which regroups universities with the same objectives, then that's much better,' said Mr Vallée, who noted that the CPU would continue following the developments of the EIT through its participation in the European Association of Universities (EUA). In 2007, the CPU will take over the presidency of another umbrella organisation, CLORA - the Club of the Associated Research Organisations in France, signalling perhaps a new dawn for French universities. 'From a French perspective, it is very significant for a university association to head CLORA,' said Mr Vallée, adding that he hoped it would go some way to raising visibility of the role of French universities in his country's research landscape.