The University of Paris-Saclay set out to gain international visibility. To some degree, this endeavor was successful. The figure on the right shows a selection of international news articles about the project.
And yet, this visibility was apparently not sufficient for 5 engineering schools. They left the project to found their own university: NewUni.
Fluctuat&Mergitur has now secured exclusive access to the so-called GoodUni-document, which describes the roadmap for the new university. We have already presented the master’s programs of the new university, and now look into the key tool that shall enable these master’s programs: a harmonized calendar.
The Existing Calendar
The existing planning of the university year at Paris-Saclay was, to say it gently, individualistic. Every university had its own semester planning, meaning that every university had different start- and end-dates of the academic year. Inside each university, every field of study had its own semester planning. Inside each field of study, every single year had its own planning. The picture on the right shows the semester dates for the last year of the computer science studies. There were not two universities in Paris-Saclay that had the same semester dates — and yet these universities were all to share common programs and courses. Before 2013, people did not even know when the semester started in the other universities, nor had it occurred to them to enquire about it. At Télécom ParisTech, the semester break even happens in the middle of the week, in the middle of a day (pictured on the right). This is one of the moments where writing a satirical magazine is easy, because reality itself is so crazy that there is no need to add anything satirical to it.
This state of affairs had a considerable impact on the organization of the common study programs. It was quite impractical to share courses across universities — even though this was the declared goal of the joint university. It was also impossible that a student who failed one course does the course again next year — because next year the student’s calendar would be different from this year’s. Apart from that, coordinating a dozen different semester plannings within the same institution was an administrational headache. This is why, in all countries that Fluctuat&Mergitur has investigated (US, Italy, Germany, Ecuador, Romania, China, and Mexico), the calendar is the same for all years and all disciplines in a university. All courses always take place at the same time of the day, on the same day of the week, from the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester. Paris-Saclay may argue that their case is different because it involves not just one university but around two dozen different institutions. But that is not an excuse: The joint university project has existed for around 10 years now — enough time to converge to a common planning.
Arguing for a Harmonized Calendar
And yet, there was considerable resistance against the idea of following the same calendar.
“People brought forward the most abstruse arguments”, remembers Dr. Naibaf, a participant in the meetings. “My favorite one was that France had had a stormy 1968 student revolution, and that this would prevent its universities from following the same semester planning” (editor’s note: the other countries did not just pass from 1967 to 1969 — they also had a 1968 student revolution). “It was argued that 3 people died in this revolution. However, the argument was dismantled by a Mexican professor who happened to be in the meeting. She clarified that Mexico’s revolution saw 100 times more people die — and still, Mexican universities follow a harmonized calendar.”
To illustrate the difficulty of the discussions, Dr. Naibaf uses the following analogy:
Imagine you are trying to convince an American to use the metric system. You say “The metric system is much simpler than yours, and it is used everywhere in the world”. And the American replies: “Yes, but in America, everything is bigger. Therefore, we cannot measure it in centimeters, we have to measure it in inches”. And it is the same when you try to convince Paris-Saclay members to use a shared calendar.
People argued that the different programs, and the different institutions necessitated different plannings. In reply to this argument, Dr. Naibaf shows us the two pictures on the right: The scheduling of trains in a British train station (top), and in an Italian train station (bottom). “Do you know why people are waiting in front of the display in the British train station? It’s because the track of their train is not yet known, and will be shown there shortly before departure. Now look at the Italian schedule. It tells you directly the track of the train. Now do you think that Italian trains are more regular than British trains? Of course not! The Italians have just understood that it is easier to state the general case, and to announce the exceptions, rather than to create time table that consists only of exceptions. If Italian trains are better organized than our semesters, we have a problem.”
The Harmonized Calendar at GoodUni
A previous initiative to harmonize the semester plannings across the partner universities has, in its 4 years of existence, never received support from the institutions. However,
quite fortunately, such a support is now no longer necessary. The GoodUni-document just settles the question once and for all: It stipulates that all schools of NewUni, and all study years, and all disciplines, follow the same calendar. Individual programs can always deviate, but the default is defined centrally. The common calendar allows all partner institutions to share courses easily. Dr. Naibaf explains: “It’s like Lego. You can build many great things with Lego only because the bricks all fit together.”
To see those great things, follow us to the next article in this episode.