French Universities Demand Action As Ph.D. Enrolments Slump

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Recent drops of up to 15 per cent in enrolments blamed on tougher security screening, stingy stipends and a hybrid system creating a crowded market for top-level qualifications

Ph.D. enrolments in France will continue to dwindle unless the government sets aside more funding to top up grants and simplifies security screening, while programmes must better sell the qualification’s non-academic appeal, sector leaders have said.

The umbrella body France Universities said it was “concerned” by data from the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation showing that Ph.D. enrolments fell by 4 per cent in 2022-23 compared with the previous academic year, calling for more money to make programmes attractive and lamenting that the highest degree was “insufficiently valued in France”.

Sylvie Pommier, who heads France’s National Network of Doctoral Colleges, said the enrolment figures followed drops of about 2 per cent a year for the past decade, and come despite 2020 reforms to raise standards in doctoral training.

For Professor Pommier, who is also deputy vice-president for doctoral research at Paris Saclay University, the drops were driven by both short- and long-term problems with how doctorates are seen and delivered in France.

She agreed with France Universities that more money must go towards Ph.D. training, including some to top up the grants foreign governments give to their doctoral students in France.

Foreign PhD students make up 40 per cent of France’s total, with 16 per cent getting a foreign grant.

Professor Pommier blamed year-on-year declines in Ph.D. enrolment of over 10 per cent in mathematics and almost 15 per cent in chemistry and materials science in part on recent security restrictions, which she said delayed by at least two months projects by students on “sensitive” topics and are detached from visa approvals processes.

French Ph.D.’s also face considerable competition from the qualifications offered by grandes écoles, which are equivalent to master’s but tightly targeted towards specific professions in the public and private sectors. “We need to change the perception of the role of these degrees,” she said.

“Compared to Germany, the Ph.D. has no value in France,” said Christine Musselin, a sociologist specialising in universities at Sciences Po. Whereas many top civil servants in Germany hold PhDs, often in law, in France their counterparts tend to have attended grandes écoles, she said, which does little for ministries’ understanding of how research works.

There are efforts to bridge that divide, notably the Cofra scheme, which was launched in 2022 and is funding around 100 doctoral students to carry out their research projects within public administration.

The National Institute of Public Service, a grande école created to replace the National School of Administration, which Emmanuel Macron closed after the gilets jaunes crisis, has also launched a scheme to recruit PhDs for the civil service, but Professor Musselin said it was “completely crazy” that they were not already considered qualified enough to become senior civil servants.

The publication last year of Adèle Combes’ polemic on academic precarity, How the University Grinds Young Researchers, may have primed the political ground for better doctoral funding, but may also have turned some off a PhD, which is still seen as largely a stepping stone to academia.

Professor Pommier said the regulations introduced in 2020 and work by doctoral schools had improved conditions for PhDs compared with a few years ago, when only about half of students had stipends and many dropped out.

She said the growth in doctoral enrolments at Paris Saclay, an entity that integrates universities and grandes écoles and that has won a hefty share of research excellence funding, stood at 28 per cent since 2016, showing that an alternative path was possible, although a cultural shift in how Ph.Ds are seen would take longer: “It’s a 10-year project at least.”

Times Higher Education

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