I am now off to Paris for a 2 day meeting of the ESPCI International Advisory Committee. ESPCI Paris Tech (the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris, one of a group of institutions which comprise an overarching but recently constructed entity known as Paris Tech) is one of the so-called Grandes Écoles in Paris, and as such is one of the elite and provides for the ‘elite’ student. The Parisian universities have very complex inter-relationships and funding mechanisms – which involve some direct oversight by the Mayor, though for ESPCI less so than in the past – which, even after 4 years on this committee, remain a mystery to me. I won’t be talking about that aspect here, but I do want to raise the issue of how broad the education is within ESPCI, and how it compares with many courses here.
The first thing to note is that students enter the Grandes Écoles after 2 years of intensive ‘cramming’ post Baccalaureate, courses which particularly cover rigorous mathematical training. They are a highly competitive bunch of students who attend, who see education at one of the Grandes Écoles, probably correctly, as a passport to a future high level job amongst the great and good. Their professional aspirations would include politics and the upper rungs of the civil service but, for ESPCI in particular, also a future in industrial management and research. The link to industry is highly valued by both the students and the academic staff, and all students will do a substantial placement in some external laboratory, possibly abroad.
That the students can readily do such an international assignment reflects the first aspect of the ESPCI education that I want to stress. The students do a huge amount of mandatory language learning. They are expected to become fluent in English, with 170 hours of classes during each of the first 3 years (of the 4 year course). For instance, in their second year much of the emphasis is on American movies and media, presumably because all the students are bombarded with these. Doing a third language is no longer mandatory, as I believe it used to be, but is clearly encouraged. So these science and engineering students have already a significant additional teaching load beyond anything a UK university might expect.
During the first two years the main emphasis is on giving all students a strong base across the sciences, so that they all do the trio of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, with specialization only later. This is seen as the necessary groundwork although many of the students would see themselves as future engineers; there is also a strong emphasis on experimental work including workshop design and practice. It is hard to think of comparable courses within the UK. I think the closest would be the Natural Sciences Tripos in Cambridge, where 1st year students choose 3 out of 8 experimental subjects plus maths.
Looking at what is expected of the students at ESPCI, I do wonder if we aim high enough here. Firstly, we assume that it is not necessary for UK students to speak any language other than English. The numbers of UK students doing Erasmus years abroad from any discipline is small (in comparison with the numbers coming here from Europe), the number of scientists in particular is tiny. Even if we assume that English - well, OK, American – is the international language of science, there is more to life than the day job.
(As an aside, I have previously pointed out how my own linguistic shortcomings have caught up with me recently , my German O Level being inadequate to enable me to follow talks in German at a recent meeting. My French – despite the attempts of my French teacher and also stopping at O Level – is slightly better, to the extent that when I was involved with the appointment interviews for the ESPCI Director a few years back I could cope. Although I was ‘allowed’ to ask my questions of the candidates in English, I could follow the presentations and submitted material well enough. This I should stress was all inadvertent: I had only agreed to be involved when invited by the then Director Pierre-Gilles de Gennes because he assured me the whole process would be in English – ‘d’accord’ as he said.)
In the UK, the early specialization at school is reinforced by most degrees. That is why I find the Natural Sciences Tripos at Cambridge so attractive; I believe Nottingham University has recently created something somewhat similar, also called Natural Sciences. It means that just because you thought Physics, for instance, was what you wanted to do at school you are not stuck if you find University Physics not to your taste or what you expected. It means that students who had never heard of Materials Science or Earth Sciences before, have the opportunity to sample them in the first year, and thereafter move completely into these fields if it takes their fancy. For students who want to be more broadly interdisciplinary that option is also there. And for those who come up uncertain whether to do physical or biological sciences, there are a wide range of possible combinations during the first year to help them make up their mind while keeping their options pretty open.
Of course, I didn’t appreciate biology when I did the course, as I’ve said before, and didn’t avail myself of the opportunities to study any of the biological options, including the very popular Biology of Cells course. This course would have been ideal for my current interests but held no attractions for my 18 year old self. ESPCI only introduced biology into their compulsory first year course relatively recently (it is an institution, after all, designed to specialize in Physics and Chemistry, as the English translation of its name – Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution – makes clear), and is definitely a minor component, but there is a strong push to give breadth in their education, and recently research in biology has started to be built up at ESPCI too. Breadth is also demonstrated by the introduction of some elements of law and management into the curriculum, again as part of the compulsory elements. There is a very clear ethos that this training is to enable the student to have a well-rounded professional attitude to their anticipated future life in an industrial setting.
There is, I fear, too little of this breadth and well-roundedness in many British science degrees. From what I can judge, engineering degrees – because of the need for professional accreditation – in the UK are more likely to contain some of the more managerial and legal aspects than pure science degrees. It is of course possible that a knock-on effect of the Browne review will be to encourage departments to introduce more of this. For instance, as David Docherty of the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CHIE) has written, after Browne the question is
“How do businesses and universities partner more inventively in the interests of the country and develop high-quality graduates who have learned how to innovate?”
This statement resonates with the impact agenda, which is finding currency at all political levels with regard to the research portfolio. So such a changing climate post-Browne may in itself drive some changes in the content of many courses, and it could be argued that the structure of the course at ESPCI would be a good model which can be seen to work. It doesn’t compromise the quality of the education for their exceptional students and the principles could be extended to a much broader range of courses for students of varying academic abilities. But leaving that factor aside, simply in terms of breadth for educating those with either an indecisive mind, or an early identified penchant to work at the boundaries between disciplines, ESPCI also offers very attractive opportunities.