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Innovation and education: A Q&A with École Polytechnique

zaymalz malz
|May 11|magazine20 min read

Education and innovation are often mentioned in the same breath, particularly when talking about the world’s top universities.

Speaking to École Polytechnique Provost Frank Pacard, we delve into the agreements that the leading French university has signed recently with the Universities of Toronto, Montreal and Halifax, discovering the key benefits of inter-institutional partnerships.

What makes École Polytechnique such a prestigious institution?

École Polytechnique is a world-class education and research institution, conveying a culture of excellence with a strong emphasis on scientific learning. It combines top-level research, academics, and innovation at the cutting edge of science and technology. Its different programs – from Bachelor’s to PhD – are highly selective and promote this culture of excellence.

For over 200 years, École Polytechnique has been a leader among the French Grandes Écoles (graduate institutions in sciences and technology). This leadership is due to the very high quality of our students and faculty and to our single, firm – and very specific – objective of providing a high level, multi-disciplinary, scientific and human education. École Polytechnique’s research departments are recognized for the excellence of their works in many fields such as mathematics, physics, and economy, and our students very much benefit from this excellence.

Many alumni of École Polytechnique have had distinguished careers in science, industry and politics. École Polytechnique is proud to count among its alumni: scientists responsible for major scientific breakthroughs that have resulted in Nobel prizes, CEOs and founders of leading international companies – such as Carlos Gohsn, CEO of Renault-Nissan; Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH; and Tidjane Thiam, CEO of Crédit Suisse, high-ranking civil servants and ministers, such as Abdourahmane Cissé, Minister of Ivory Coast, and even a former French President, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

I understand that École Polytechnique has signed agreements with the Universities of Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. What is the core focus of these?

By signing these agreements, École Polytechnique hopes to pursue and strengthen collaborations with these Canadian universities, particularly with regard to student mobility. In today’s globalized world, we believe that it is vital for high-potential students – who are sure to have a great amount of responsibility in their professional career – to gain some experience of living abroad. Therefore, we strongly encourage all of our students to go off and discover other countries and cultures. An international experience like this is thus a mandatory part of our Bachelor’s and Ingénieur polytechnicien programs.

We intend to cooperate with the Canadian universities to be able to send our students off to study for a few months in Toronto, Montreal or Halifax, and in return, we will welcome students from those institutions to the École Polytechnique campus in France. The agreements we have signed also focus on exchanges of professors and researchers. They will help strengthen collaborations, develop exchanges, and provide a source of mutual enrichment with our partners.

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What do you identify when signing such agreements? Is it a strict process of selection?

Polytechnique Montreal is one of our long-standing partners with whom we have been keeping agreements for over 20 years, but we have just begun cooperation with the Universities of Toronto and Halifax. Although each of the agreements signed with these partner universities covers a different scope, they share certain objectives and all have the same philosophy or approach. The agreements include an exchange program for undergraduate students, which will make certain procedures much easier for those who benefit from it, especially with regard to internship proposals and speeding up the process for acquiring a visa. We have also planned joint scholarship programs as part of the agreements, which will allow for increased mobility of promising students. Furthermore, the collaborations cover the creation of host programs for visiting professors and researchers, as well as joint tutoring agreements for PhD students.

The fact that our classes in English are taught in a Francophone country will perfectly meet the expectations of students coming from a bilingual country like Canada. Here they will have no difficulties following our excellent classes, where they will be able to learn while immersed in a French-speaking environment.

What challenges have you faced in pursuing these partnerships?

The challenges of this type of agreement are found mainly in the cultural differences between our countries. In France, completing an overseas internship or mentioning on your CV that you spent some time abroad is generally viewed to be very positive, especially by employers, and this has now become an essential career step. This is not necessarily the case in Canada, where students are not always encouraged to gain experience in a foreign country, even though, to my understanding, things are changing in that respect.

The challenge consists therefore of convincing Canadian students to travel abroad more, which will be valuable to them later in their career. These agreements will certainly help to highlight the importance of such exchanges.

How important is inter-institutional collaboration, both domestically and internationally?

Agreements signed between institutions are of course very important and their importance is always emphasized by the signatories. However, it is even more important to have “living” agreements, in the sense that these agreements actually allow things to happen, i.e. exchanges of students and researchers, and collaborative educational and research projects. I am convinced that the agreements we have entered into with the Canadian universities will be active, and some exchanges were already active even before any agreements were signed.

How can such agreements be used to the benefit of students, particularly in STEM?

  • Acquiring international study experience is a very sought-after asset for working at companies that are becoming increasingly international.

  • Students can benefit from different teaching styles and pedagogical approaches.

  • It is important for future leaders and decision-makers to have this level of cultural integration and bilingualism.

  • L’X is renowned for its very strong links with the start-up industry and environment.

Equally, are academic professionals able to prosper through the collaboration and sharing of resources?

These agreements open up the possibility to develop exchange programs for professors and researchers, which will allow for new collaborations to be forged in relation to both research and joint education programs.

Are these agreements integral to solving the growing global issue of digital skills shortages?

The agreements we have signed are not specific to the digital sector, but the exchange of experience in this field nevertheless remains very important. Our partnerships will allow for the advancement of such exchanges, as our institutions have much to contribute to each other.

Should educational institutions be responsible for addressing this? What role do governments and corporations need to play?

Higher education and research institutions are already doing a great deal to nurture talents in the digital world. In order to do so additional funding is needed, and this comes either from state governments or from private enterprises, for instance in the form of sponsorship. They will then in turn benefit from the exceptional education given by universities.