French university towns and decentralization

As it turns out, there’s no need for me to cobble together my own maps of French higher education. A beautiful official atlas is already made available by the Higher Education Ministry, with far more detail than I would care to track down by myself. Let me reproduce a couple of their figures:

As you can see, Paris is still by far the biggest university town. If we look at the accompanying figures for 2007-8, it turns out that Paris proper has 156,743 university students, with 320,942 total in the Paris region (Ile-de-France). After that, we have Lyon (73,262), Lille (58,788), Toulouse (57,907), Aix/Marseille (56,590), Bordeaux (53,335), Montpellier (43,355), Strasbourg (37,299), Rennes (37,008), Grenoble (32,978), Nancy (28,078), Nantes (26,329), Nice (21,664), and from there on down… As in the last post on centralization, here too, mapping by student population size, we can see that the Parisian region remains by far the largest university site — its 320,942 of 1,225,643 total public university students comes out to 26% of the nation’s university population. (Note that universities only constitute about half–56%–of the French higher ed population, but we’ll talk about the rest of them some other time.)

But our thinking about centralization has to shift when we find out that, over time, provincial universities have grown and thus diminished Paris’s relative standing. In other words, it seems that historically, Paris used to be even more the center of the academic universe than it is now. To better understand this process let’s look at a thumbnail sketch of French university massification by a sociologist I know here, Charles Soulié:

Dit de manière extrêmement schématique et en si on se base sur l’évolution du nombre d’enseignants titulaires dans chaque faculté, discipline, on observe que la 1er massification, celle des années 1960 donc, sera à l’origine d’un développement sans précédent des disciplines de lettres et sciences humaines, tandis que la part relative des facultés de sciences, et médecine, baissera considérablement. Plus précisément en lettres et sciences humaines, la progression sera notamment le fait des nouvelles disciplines de sciences humaines sociales (psychologie, sociologie, etc.).

Put very schematically and looking at the evolution of the number of teaching appointments in each faculty and discipline, one sees that the first massification, that of the 1960s, originated an unprecedented development of letters and human sciences; while at the same time the relative fraction of the science and medicine faculties was considerably diminished. More precisely, in letters and human sciences, growth occurred primarily in the new social and human sciences (psychology, sociology, etc).

La seconde massification verra l’explosion des IUT, universités de proximité, antennes universitaires diverses, la part de Paris et de la région parisienne diminuant considérablement dans le potentiel national à la faveur d’un processus de régionalisation croissant de l’enseignement supérieur. Concernant les disciplines, elle s’accompagnera d’un développement très important de la faculté de droit sciences économiques, les lettres et sciences humaines, et surtout les sciences dures, connaissant une augmentation inférieure à la moyenne, tandis qu’en raison du numerus clausus la part relative des enseignants des disciplines médicales diminuera considérablement.

The second massification saw the explosion of IUTs (University Technical Institutes), local universities, and off-campus university branches; the relative size of Paris and of the Parisian region fell considerably in the face of a process of growing regionalization in higher education. This was accompanied by major growth in the faculty of law and economic sciences, while letters and human sciences, and especially the hard sciences, grew less than average. The medical disciplines, because of the fixed limits on their admissions, saw the relative size of their teaching faculty considerably diminished.

I’m not an expert like Soulié on what he would call changing disciplinary morphology — that is, the changes in proportional sizes of the disciplines. But the gist here, which is supported by various other publications I’ve come across, is that the “new” social sciences grew in the 60s, while now it’s the more vocational fields (business, economics, etc) which are the major growth fields. And if it’s true that, as Soulié says, the most recent university expansion goes hand in hand with university regionalization, then we might reasonably expect that Paris, the more traditional academic capital, would remain more dominant in older fields like “letters, languages and human sciences.” As is, to judge by this map of letters and human sciences enrollments, indeed the case:

It’s obvious from visual inspection that the relative size of Paris is much larger here than in the other diagram. I couldn’t easily find the exact figures for each city, but the key (which I had to crop) suggests that Paris has 120,000, while the other large dots are only a few tens of thousands. In other words, it does seem to be the case that the most traditional subjects (the humanities and social sciences) are particularly Paris-centered.

Indeed, if we look at the distribution of doctoral enrollments, we can see that Paris is, if anything, even more overwhelmingly dominant:

Here Paris is represented by a dot that means 20,000, while the other dots are probably one or two thousand and less. In other words, even if university education has been spread around the country, the reproduction of the disciplines, of the professoriate, of the academic “corps” remains almost exclusively a Parisian concern.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find data about the changing rates of Parisian (demographic) dominance narrowed down by discipline and degree level. But I think we can assume that some disciplines are less centralized than others, and that the degrees of Parisian centralization have shifted at different rates depending on the disciplines. I’ll try to track that down. In the meantime, it’s interesting to reflect on the curious interrelations we see here between ongoing Parisian dominance and growing but only relative decentralization. It’s as if there’s decentralization, but only according to a pre-existing spatial hierarchy. Ongoing centralization and gradual decentralization at once. Which should be no surprise to readers of David Harvey on contradictory spatial processes…

One thought on “French university towns and decentralization

  1. I found your set of maps pretty interesting, but I wonder how they would change if you added in more variables, like population of each region and distances between universities. That is, in your other post, you show that Corsica has only one uni, but much smaller (by area, but not by population) places, like Réunion, have *2*! I wonder if that’s not partly the result of one’s being rather close to l’Hexagone, and the other not at all. But that also may explain why Paris is surrounded in your other map by white and grey.

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