A technological powerhouse to rival MIT and Oxbridge

The French are waking the sleeping giant

It's an ambition as towering as the nearby Alps. In Grenoble, south-east France, eight institutions covering research, teaching and management are co-operating to create a new knowledge complex immodestly called Giant.

The premise of Grenoble Innovation for Advanced New Technologies is to create in France a powerhouse to rival the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by strengthening the intellectual, institutional and physical connections between the partner institutions on one site in the heart of the city. In the process, the project will become a symbol of the much-needed reforms in French higher education.

"Giant is the co-ordination of an existing place, not the creation of a place," says Thierry Grange, director of the Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM), which is the only management school in the consortium. "We want a place as famous as Oxford or Cambridge. We have the ingredients. We want to create a brand."

There are three groups of institutions in the consortium. GEM is joined by two other academic institutions, the Grenoble Institute of Technology and the Joseph Fourier University.

Research is represented by two major French bodies, the Atomic Energy Commission and the National Scientific Research Centre. The final group comprises two research organisations, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, which operates a supermicroscope for examining the structure of matter, and the Institut Laue-Langevin, which specialises in neutron science.

All of these institutions have strong international reputations, so Giant can boast an impressive level of combined brainpower. Adrienne Pervès, who is in charge of international relations on Giant's steering committee, offers an example: 6,000 researchers, technologists and engineers; 3,000 scientists visit each year; 5,000 publications and 500 patents registered each year; 4,000 students, of whom about 3,000 are from GEM.

Equally impressive is the project's physical dimension. The institutions have shared the same site, a 250-hectare promontory between the rivers Isère and Drac, for a quarter of a century. But the area is scruffy and poorly organised. A €500m master plan drawn up by the French architect Claude Vasconi envisages a new ecological zone served by low-carbon trams, shuttles and electric vehicles, with new housing, research and teaching buildings, shops, hotels, restaurants, parks and a selection of recreation facilities.

Despite all these ingredients, Giant's success will be decided by its relationship with business. Grenoble boasts major French companies such as Schneider Electric and STMicroelectronics, and hosts almost 500 foreign companies, among them big names such as Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard. Giant's researchers include 1,500 electronics experts, of whom 70 per cent work on industrial contracts. Many of GEM's students do internships at local companies, which often subsequently employ them.

Typically students on the part-time MBA programme at the Grenoble Graduate School of Management, which is part of GEM, are local French engineers. GEM itself is an offspring of the Grenoble Chamber of Commerce, which invested €30m in a new building for the school. The money was raised from a tax on local businesses.

Indeed, Giant does not seem to have any financial constraints. Total funding is put at €1.5bn, divided roughly in equal proportions between the French government, regional government, and the private sector. Some €380m of central government's contribution will come from the proceeds of the privatisation of EDF, the electricity company. As a matter of policy, the government has earmarked a good slice of the proceeds for higher education.

Behind this financial commitment lies a largely unspoken recognition that French higher education is in urgent need of reform. The sector has been divided and fragmented, split between public universities that do little research, research institutions that do little teaching, and the grandes ecoles, of which GEM is one, whose purpose in life is to train the ruling elite. The government has tried to consolidate the public universities, for example by combining six universities in Grenoble into a single institution, which is one of the 10 designated elite universities around the country. And in the past few weeks, the government has provoked a heated debate by suggesting that a quota of one-third of entrants to grandes ecoles should come from poor backgrounds.

One public spur to change in higher education has been France's dismal performance in the Shanghai international rankings of universities. After first scoffing at the league table, France's aim now is to get the nation respectably ranked within five years. While Giant is not about improving the ranking of a particular institution, it is about raising standards by making the most of what institutions can do together rather than separately.

Moreover, there is an even broader consideration than the international reputation of French education; globalisation has meant there is much more competition in the business of scientific research and innovation than there once was. "With globalisation, there is a need to defend a scientific space. Schneider has a choice of research locations. We're in the middle of the biggest market in the world. If you know about the science and the market, this is a good place to be," says Grange.

Combining scientific research, teaching and management more effectively will be central to creating the kind of jobs France needs to be competitive, Grange argues. "Being competitive is knowledge on one side and visibility on the other. How can we be more visible to the world? How can we attract the Chinese?"

Giant is meant to be the answer. MIT is the model not just because of its content but because it is the right kind of container, Grange says. But Cambridge, Munich, Singapore, Shanghai and Zurich, among others, have the same idea.

Much will depend on how Giant's institutions work together to bury inevitable differences and rivalries and attract quality researchers, teachers, businesses and students, which are essential to its success. For its part, by successfully offering English language Masters and MBA courses in London and Grenoble, as well as several other places, GEM has already shown it is possible for Grenoble to broaden its international appeal. Giant may realise some of its ambition at least.