The French connection

A bold plan to revive the University of London's institute in Paris could inspire more British students to cross the Channel to learn French - and bring in extra income too. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

The British Institute in Paris has been a well-kept secret for decades. Situated in a beautiful 19th-century chateau-style building near Les Invalides, with an awesome view of the Eiffel Tower, it has been teaching French to British undergraduates for the past 35 years. Part of the University of London, it is the only British university campus in Continental Europe with its own building and staff.

The problem is that it has such a low profile that few people have heard of it beyond a coterie of French specialists. It has been getting by on a woefully small budget because it exists to teach only 90 full-time British undergraduates a year and 50 on their year abroad, and subsidises that with courses in English for French people. Its accommodation is run down and its facilities and research limited.

Now, all that is about to change. The institute is to get a name change and a makeover. Two colleges of London University, Queen Mary and Royal Holloway, are going into partnership with it. The aim is to lift its teaching and research, and to exploit its stunning position in the French capital. "We're going to make the institute leapfrog into the 21st century," says Sir Graeme Davies, vice-chancellor of the University of London. "We did a study of it and it became clear that we had a major academic asset that had been seriously unexploited, which wasn't in the interests of either the institute or the academic community as a whole."

It will be called the University of London Institute in Paris. Over the next three to five years, £1.5m or more will be put into renovating the classrooms, the library and the computers, and installing a proper cafeteria so that students get the kind of facilities that they are coming to expect in these days of tuition fees.

"In this, the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, it is fitting that the University of London should have committed itself to a major development of the Institute in Paris, to create a real centre of excellence for the study of the French language and culture," says Sir Graeme.

The Institute's big problem is its size. Without the "critical mass" of a large institution - the marketing, research activity, and administrative and other support - it is difficult for it to capitalise on the funding and other initiatives that proliferate in today's university world. It is also difficult for it to compete with other, better-funded institutions because it lacks the resources and infrastructure to make an impact and come up to speed. For example, it scored 18 out of 24 in its teaching-quality assessment because, although its teaching was considered to be of a high quality, it was lacking in resources and student support.

Both Queen Mary and Royal Holloway have French departments that are going places. Queen Mary's scored a 5, the top grade, in the research-assessment exercise, and Royal Holloway went one better, achieving a 5*. Both have hired one additional professor of French recently. The hope is that the new consortium will give the institute some much-needed synergy - that the collaboration will produce more than the sum of the separate parts.

The two colleges have ambitious plans. One is to expand the institute by tapping into the US market, thus bringing in some welcome income and ensuring that the place becomes better known. The idea is to run a programme for Americans who want to do their junior year in Europe. Students would spend part of their time in London and the rest in Paris, and would study a subject such as art or art history. Queen Mary already has 230 Americans doing their junior year abroad in east London, and Royal Holloway has 70-80 on its campus in Egham, Surrey.

Another idea is to use the three-year French degree run by the Institute as the model for a new French degree at Queen Mary and Royal Holloway. The advantage of the Institute's degree in French is that it is only three years - students don't need the fourth year because they are in France doing all their learning in French. That makes it cheaper, a great advantage to students. The idea is to create a French degree with one year in Paris and the other two years in London. (This already happens at King's College London, which sends French students for one of their three years to the Institute.)

The third aim is to build up the Institute's research. It achieved only a 3a in the research-assessment exercise, which is not as good as it should be and means that it received no money from the Higher Education Funding Council. A glance at the institute's website suggests that it is not at the cutting edge of research into French literature or culture.

Work has already begun on trying to remedy this. The University of London has this year given four PhD studentships to graduates who will have to spend part of their time at the Institute. "We hope to use that as a base for further strengthening the research environment in Paris and across the disciplines - in French history, politics, geography and music," says Professor Philip Ogden, vice-principal of Queen Mary.

Royal Holloway hopes that the initiative will open up commercial opportunities in France. "The Institute will not only provide benefits for our own students but also give Royal Holloway a bridgehead into Europe for knowledge transfer and interaction with business," says Professor Andrew Wathey, Royal Holloway's vice-principal.

The Institute's new director, Professor Robert Lethbridge, is excited at the prospect of all this interest and money flowing across the Channel. He hopes to expand student numbers by starting a new comparative English/French BA, which would examine the differing cultures, political systems and mindsets of the two nations. He adds: "We want to develop a major postgraduate centre, not just for the PhD in French studies but in comparative areas, where students need to be in France and in touch with French research."

The new development should be seen in the context of the further rationalisation of the University of London. For several decades now, colleges have been merging. Most are effectively universities in their own right. The University of London is left running a clutch of institutes, all of which are postgraduate and able to compete in the race, except for the British Institute in Paris. So something had to be done, but it couldn't be developed as a free-standing institution because it is so small. Collaboration, it was decided, was the answer.

Rivals see the investment as a big challenge for the university and the two colleges. No real research has been done, says one critic. "I think it's a gamble. They're trying to go into the off-shore campus business. Is this the time to do it in Europe?" Certainly, the revamped Institute will take time to bed down.

But other observers are optimistic. "It sounds absolutely excellent," says Anne Corbett, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics specialising in European higher education. "Given the difficulty of persuading British students to study overseas, this kind of synergy could put some steam into language learning."

John Reilly, director of the UK Socrates- Erasmus Council, the EU's student exchange programme, says that the development is a good thing because it begins to recognise the importance of Europe in British higher education. "British students need to have a study experience elsewhere," he says.

So it looks as though the Union flag will be flying from the Institute's building in Paris for a while yet. Who knows, it might even inspire more British students to study French, and thus reverse the trend for students to drop foreign languages after the age of 14.

'THE BEST PLACE TO STUDY FRENCH IS IN FRANCE'

Sarah Leaf, 22, graduated from the Institute last summer, and has decided to stay in Paris. She has found a job as an English teacher in a language school and is setting up a bilingual theatre company in her spare time.

"It's the best place to study French because you're in France. You don't have to be brilliant to get in. I had average grades, four Bs at A-level. At first the total-immersion approach was terrifying. Being thrown into classes and lectures where only French is spoken is extremely difficult. Also it's a different culture. You have to get used to the French way of life. The people seem more direct. But after a couple of weeks I began to get used to it. I started off living with an old French lady. It was difficult but she was lovely. The great thing is that the classes are very small, often 30 people but sometimes less than 10."

David English, 21, is in his third and final year. He got into the Institute with A-level grades of ABC. The C was in French. He attended a comprehensive school outside Bristol and is president of the student union at the Institute.

"I can't think of a better way of learning French. I learnt more in a couple of weeks here than in six years at school in England. I took a year out and worked on my French before I arrived so that I would be more comfortable in lessons. When you have only five or 10 people in a class, the level of the teaching is incredible."

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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