In France's long summer, universities become ghost towns in early June, as students head off back-packing and professors hit the garden recliners, with more than three months to go before they have to return to campus.

But this year, the pleasure-seeking at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, better known as Sciences Po, is on hold. Set up in 1871 as one of the "grandes ecoles" to groom the political and diplomatic elite, Sciences Po is going through a change that is being closely scrutinised, for it could determine the future path of France's much-troubled higher education system.

Sciences Po's role as an incubator of leaders is huge. When he took office in May, Francois Hollande became the third Sciences Po graduate to become president in three decades. He took over from former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who attended the institute but didn't graduate from it.

Other alumni include former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, ex International Monetary Fund chief Michel Camdessus, and Pascal Lamy, current head of the World Trade Organisation.


Nestling in ancient buildings in the Latin Quarter, Sciences Po is famed for its small, intimate classes, with an 11-to-one student-to-teacher ratio, its intellectual hauteur and a clubbiness that creates lifetime friendships.

"Sciences Po always gets a nod and a wink because all of the top people, the politicians, the journalists, graduate from it," one of its professors, Alain-Gerard Slama, says.

The big question is who will replace director Richard Descoings, who in 16 years engineered reforms which supporters say are a model for overhauling France's many declining universities.

Descoings took the helm of Sciences Po in 1996 at the age of just 38. He set about scrapping century-old admission policies and teaching practices. He more than doubled the number of students from 4000 to 10,000, carving out places for people from Paris' economically poor, high-immigration suburbs, creating the first affirmative-action programme in French education.

He tore apart the admissions system, which largely favoured the elite, state-funded high schools. Out went the "concours," a competitive exam that Descoings derided as an exercise in cramming. In its place, high schools were allowed to recommend pupils based on their academic record, and applicants underwent a 45-minute interview to assess their personality.

To the horror of francophone traditionalists, Descoings gave the green light for many courses to be taught in English to help attract foreign students.

But this was just the start. He opened six satellite campuses outside Paris, signed partnership deals with Harvard and Columbia Universities in America and the London School of Economics, and made it mandatory for all undergraduates to spend a year abroad.

In 2003, he attacked the taboo of tuition fees. Wealthier students now pay up to €9000 ($13,900) a year, while the less well-off students pay around €1000. By world standards, these are not high, but most state universities in France charge between €150 and €400 a year on the principle that they should be accessible to anyone with the baccalaureat (high school diploma), regardless of income.

At the heart of Descoings' thinking was to cut the institute's dependence on the state and restore its prestige. Last year the institute's annual budget was €130 million, of which 56 per cent was contributed by the state compared with two-thirds in 2000. A growing chunk of income comes from sponsorship, which raises hackles among educationalists who defend "la tradition republicaine" whereby education should be funded by the state to keep it neutral and free from outside influences.

Diehards attacked Descoings as an autocrat who slavishly imitated Anglo-Saxon mercantilism. But he succeeded in re-making Sciences Po into a worldwide brand. Foreigners now account for nearly half of the school's 10,500 students and pay fees of up to €13,000 annually. According to Fitch Ratings, Sciences Po has an A+ status among the world's academic institutions, a judgment based on its "national and international academic excellence and its unique position in the French higher education system".

Descoings was a trailblazer. He spurred Sarkozy during his presidency to carry out a timid but hugely criticised reform giving state universities greater control of their finances. These universities are in France's second division, lagging way behind the handful of "grandes ecoles".

Many were built in the 1970s and have a reputation for dullness and hideous architecture, crammed auditoriums, lazy or indifferent teachers and diplomas that have no relevance outside academia. In the 2011-2012 Times higher education survey, the highest ranking for a French state university is 169.

So when Descoings died of a heart attack on April 3, aged just 53, the mourning was sincere. Lectures were immediately suspended and thousands of students gathered for a memorial service; hundreds signed remembrance books and posted messages on social media sites. Sarkozy paid tribute to his tenure as "a historic turning point in awareness of scandalous social elitism in France", while the head of France's employers' federation, Laurence Parisot, described him as "a tireless builder of promotion through merit".

Who gets to replace this star is being closely monitored, for the choice will show which way the Government will blow in future changes to the academic system.

Hollande's Socialist Party has deep roots of support among teachers, many of whom are viscerally opposed to Descoings-style changes.

The two frontrunners are Herve Cres, Descoings' former deputy and now acting director, who is an economist and renowned conservative, and Dominique Reynie, a media-savvy pro-European political scientist whose political leanings are regarded as centrist.

But the appointment process is opaque and prone to political influence, with the President himself having the final word. According to the news website Mediapart, "a page could be about to turn" at Sciences Po, with the possibility of a backlash against the Descoings era.