Fluctuat et Mergitur

Your voice of reason at Paris-Saclay

GoodUni Master Programs
As we have previously reported, Fluctuat&Mergitur has secured exclusive access to the so-called GoodUni-document. This secret paper describes the roadmap for the new university that 5 engineering schools want to create just south of Paris (called “NewUni”). In the first of a series of articles, we explain what this document has to say about the master’s programs of the new university.

Comprehensive map of all European countries that award Engineering Diplomas that are equivalent to, but different from, Master’s degrees.
(Map by TUBS@Wikicommons)
This part of the document is, mildly put, explosive. It is no wonder that the paper has so far been kept secret. The paper claims, quite plainly, that “there is no fundamental difference between an engineering diploma and a master’s degree”. This is the most blasphemous statement that one can make in atheist France. It took us a long time to find an expert who was willing to talk with us on this topic. We could finally convince someone from Télécom ParisTech to share his view — under guarantee of anonymity. Our anonymous source (Dr. Naibaf) explains:
What may look like blasphemy is in fact not so far-fetched. A diploma from Stanford is worth more than a diploma from Shaw University. And yet, both are master's degrees. The value of the Stanford diploma does not come from an incompatible type of diploma, but from a better selection of students, from a higher quality of teaching and research, from a better type of curriculum, from a better ratio of students to professors, and from more available money.
The GoodUni-document concurs, and summarizes quite down-to-earth: “In the end, no matter the name of the diploma, it’s all just teaching hours dispensed to students. Our goal must thus be to dispense the right content, to the right students, by the right lecturers.” The “right students”, the document notes, are selected by the national competition (“concours”). The “right content” comes from a carefully designed curriculum that includes lessons on general culture, language lessions, and practical projects in close connection with the industry. The “right lecturers” are attracted by a productive, supportive, and well-endowed working environment. None of these items is a priori incompatible with a master’s degree. As our anonymous source (Dr. Naibaf) grudgingly notes: A degree from Stanford is worth more than a degree from Télécom ParisTech — even if the former is a master’s degree and the latter is an engineering diploma. The difference lies in the quality, and not in the name of the degree.

In the coming years, the difference between the two types of degrees may erode even more: First, universities will be allowed to select their students. What was previously a no-go is now putting into question the raison-d’être of the engineering diploma. Second, the market of students is becoming more international: Foreign students want to come to France, and French students want to go abroad. The common interface for this exchange is the Master’s degree. The GoodUni-document concludes: “In the end, we have more to gain than to lose from branding our studies as a proper Master’s program on the international level. We can still call it Diplôme d’Ingénieur nationally.”

The Master Plan

And now comes the real surprise: Quite unexpectedly for a university project description, the document does not just talk about branding. It also outlines a plan of restructuring the study programs. We have found a schema on page 31 of the report, and we have scanned it for our readers (figure on the right). The new schema establishes 2-year master’s programs at the heart of the new structure. The students spend their first year in their school. In the second and third year, they enroll in the new master’s programs. They still spend 2 days of the week (Thursday and Friday) in their home school — apparently to allow the schools to keep their profile. Quite interesting in this context is the separate role of a mysterious school called “School X”. We have talked to our anonymous informant (Dr. N.), and he explains:
You have to be realistic. Part of the reason why Paris-Saclay did not work was that we did not pay enough attention to the particularities of the “School X”. We have now learned from this experience, and we are ready to give “School X” its freedom. Students from that school will still participate in the joint master programs, but to a lesser degree. A similar model applies to the “School Z” (the last school in the alphabet and a number of other aspects). That school will be integrated gradually into the scheme.
According to unnamed sources (Dr. Naibaf), this model has several advantages. The most prominent advantage is that it exists. This distinguishes it from the models of Paris-Saclay, which did not exist. As the GoodUni-document explains, though, the plan is not for immediate implementation. It is a commitment of the schools to converge to a common system by the year 2023. During this convergence process, the schools are prohibited from creating any programs that would run counter to the initiative (such as, e.g., 3 different new programs just because a new buzzword recently became popular). The plan also offers some flexibility: During the first years of the convergence process, the schools will require students to take only 30% of their courses in the master’s program. This percentage will steadily increase, as more and more courses are migrated from the Engineering Diploma to the Master’s program. In 2023, students will spend most of their time in the master’s program — and possibly even more beyond that date.

The goal is to offer the students a broader choice of courses, while at the same time becoming compatible with the international master programs. The convergence process will also de facto merge the schools on the long run. The GoodUni document is apparently serious in its pledge: “to make sacrifices for a greater good”.

Organization of studies

The old system:

 

The new system below. Can you spot the difference?

 

The GoodUni-document does not stop here. It stipulates that the basic unit of teaching is a course with a number of ECTS credits. All that students have to do is to accumulate a certain number of ECTS during their master’s studies. Courses can have prerequisites, meaning that students are not allowed to take a course if they have not validated a course that is a prerequisite for it. Apart from this, students can take courses in any order they wish. The distinction between the M1 and the M2 no longer exists — the program consists just of a pool of courses with a partial order given by the prerequisites. This entails that notion of “repeating a year” becomes obsolete. The students just do courses, and obtain the diploma when they have accumulated enough ECTS credits. Students, who, for legacy reasons, have to join in the M2, just do half the number of credits.

Students can also subscribe directly to a PhD track. In that case, they still do course work during 2 years, just like the other students. However, their internship is a research project proposal. If they validate the course work, and if the project proposal is judged solid, the student continues directly into the PhD.

Just like at EPFL, at Stanford, at the MIT, at the Technical University of Munich, at CalTech, and at many other universities, the courses are split into fields (shown on the bottom right). Students can be obliged to validate a certain number of ECTS credits in one field (the “major”) — so as to specialize their education. The other credits have to come from one or several other fields (the “minors”) — so as to broaden their education. Students also have to validate a certain number of credits in obligatory fields (e.g., cultural education). This system allows to easily accommodate the arrival or departure of a lecturer, the creation of a new course, or the migration of a course from the engineering diploma to the master’s program. In particular, it allows smaller fields to exist even if they are too small to form a master’s program of their own.

“This was the hardest part of the discussion”, remembers a participant of the meetings, Dr. Naibaf. “This flexible model is very close to what Télécom ParisTech once already had. The model was replaced by a more strict model, because at the time, we did not think ahead for Paris-Saclay, let alone for NewUni. And yet, even in the light of NewUni, people preferred to stay with the strict model rather than to change again to the flexible one — a problem known as sunk cost.” But since so much cost has been sunk anyway, the GoodUni document prescribes the flexible system for all members of NewUni. This is a quite radical change, which brings the system in line with international practices. In Dr Naibaf’s words, “We are now no longer old-school. We are New-Uni!”

To see what other changes will come, read on!

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