Sorbonne Université ((c) Guillaume Didelet)

As in Germany, there has been an initiative in France on the topic of rare disciplines for several years now. Since around 2018, a mapping of "disciplines rares" is being established. What gave the impetus to develop a mapping of "discipline rares" in France?

As in Germany, there have been working groups in France on the topic of rare disciplines for several years now. Since around 2018, a mapping of "disciplines rares" has been created and the impetus for this came from several sources which are outlined below:

The French and German Presidents' Conferences have definitely contributed to the visibility of rare disciplines in France, initially referred to as "low enrolment disciplines". However, the future of rare disciplines was further highlighted during the Assises de l'Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche in 2012. Proposal n° 42 of the Assises report declared the intention to "support disciplines with low numbers (academics and students) but high stakes and at risk of disappearence", with a recommendation to work on identifying the disciplines to be supported. Following the meeting of the 5 Presidents' Conferences (Germany, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland) on 27 September 2016, a Franco-German cooperation was decided upon to identify and quantify rare disciplines to be shared with the 3 other Conferences. Thus, a common Franco-German observation methodology was to be established jointly by the Arbeitsstelle Kleine Fächer from Mainz (MAKF) and the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research (MESR), in partnership with the Conference of University Presidents. Since then, MESR, France Universités (formerly CPU) and MAKF have been working together to transpose and adapt the German methodology to the French context in order to produce a cartography of French rare disciplines, a Franco-German cartography as well as an observation methodology based on this work.

What are the goals of the initiative and what successes can you already observe?

For us, the objective is to improve the visibility of Rare Disciplines, both nationally and internationally, to carry out a detailed mapping, to understand the reasons for the observed evolutions and to provide a tool to help preserve or create institutions. The interest of joining forces between Germany and France is to be able to pool solid expertise across the Rhine, to compare conceptual and methodological points of view on the implementation of a common observation methodology and thus to be able to propose to the other European Conferences of University Presidents an identification and quantification approach tested by two different nations, with different systems, but whose union is the undeniable added value of a project with a wide diffusion. The cooperation with the MAKF is therefore a solid basis for progress on such a complex project.

We conducted a national online survey of all higher education and research institutions in 2021 and collected 1,726 usable responses, of which 1,439 (83.4%) indicated a "rare" situation (emergence, mutation, nature, decline, other reason). 1,244 respondents agreed to be contacted again, i.e. 72.1%, and 1,261 wished to be included in an expertise database, i.e. 73.1%.

The analysis of the names of specialities considered rare in training (2,529) and research (2,768) as well as free comments (7,054) led to the constitution of study communities (Arbeitsgruppen). In fact, priority was given to teaching and research specialities whose members mobilised to build up dossiers that met the criteria for recognition as a "Rare Discipline". 34 study communities have been set up with a view to being recognised as "Rare Disciplines" and are being accompanied during the evaluation process leading, potentially, to their integration and follow-up in the mapping of "Rare Disciplines". To date: 12 specialties have been included in the mapping of "Rare Disciplines" and 4 are in observation status.

We use the criteria defined by the MAKF, except for the one concerning the number of academics. This is because our systems are not strictly comparable and we cannot meet the criterion of counting only university professors as it stands. We also have to take into account lecturers and CNRS research fellows and directors who are often involved in teaching and research. The other criteria have been retained as they stand.

Which scientific fields have the status of "discipline rare" in France until now? Are the German kleine Fächer also discipline rare in France?

The 12 specialities recognised as "Rare Disciplines" are: Burmese studies, Hittite studies, Macedonian studies, Peul studies, Paper engineering, Lichenology, Nephro-Oncology, Vestibular otoneurology, Romani and among the Regional Languages of France: Breton and Celtic, Francoprovençal, Occitan language.

The 4 specialties in observation status are: Archaeogeography, Legal and Institutional History, Music applied to the Visual Arts and Pedology. Following the example of the MAKF, we consider that following their request for recognition as Rare Disciplines, certain specialities require further clarification and discussion before being fully integrated into the mapping of Rare Disciplines.

Concerning the approximation of the French Rare Disciplines with the list of the Kleine Fächer of the MAKF, we note that Pedology, recognised as a kleines Fach "Bodenkunde", is in observation status on the French side and that among the working groups in progress are Sign language (Gebärdensprache + Gebärdensprachdolmetschen und -übersetzen + Gehörlosen und Schwerhörigenpädagogik), Cristallographie (Kristallographie), Ergonomic (Arbeitswissenschaft). Among the ancient languages and cultures we also find several specialities that could be common: Egyptology (Ägyptologie), Pre-Columbian studies (Altamerikanistik), Ancient Greek language and literature (Gräzistik + Byzantinistik), Latin language and literature (Latinistik), as well as among the extra-European languages and cultures: African studies (Afrikanistik), Arabic studies (Arabistik), Indian studies (Indologie), Jewish studies (Judaistik) or in archaeology: Archaeogeography could perhaps correspond to Historische Geographie, which requires further examination.

The examination of applications for the recognition of "Rare Disciplines" requires a precise definition of the scientific field, an understanding of the relationship between the candidate speciality and related disciplines, a verification of the adequacy of the application presented with the definition criteria, and also a consultation with the study communities to analyse the basis of the internal consensus and the intelligibility of their arguments.

What is the common ground of the scientific fields that have been recognized as "discipline rare" in France so far?

The main common factor among the specialities recognised as "Rare Disciplines" is their low number of academics and students at national level and their representation in few, if any, higher education and research institutions. These specialities are often little known or misunderstood. This is why the "Rare Disciplines" recognition process is an opportunity for them to gain visibility within their institution and within the academic community as a whole. Academics are often isolated and, as they say themselves, working within the study community often allows them to forge links and to project themselves more easily into shared activities in training and research.

Where is the issue located structurally in France?

The main difficulty is probably encountered in the same way in Germany, where "Rare Disciplines" marked by small numbers of scientists often go undetected and are hidden by broader, more official names. As a result, as the 2014 report by the French Conference of Presidents (now France Universités) points out: "[...] the disappearance of a professorship in a university can lead to the immediate disappearance of a discipline. This can only be remedied by importing specialists. It is therefore important to ensure that knowledge does not disappear simply because of budgetary constraints or a local error of judgment concerning the national need for certain disciplines. It is therefore urgent to equip ourselves with the capacities for observation and strategic analysis that will enable us to anticipate these situations and to take informed decisions at all levels of responsibility so as not to be in a situation of dependence in the future." (p.7).

This objective presupposes an awareness of the "Rare disciplines" issue in evaluation procedures and decisions within institutions and national bodies. The setting up of a concerted procedure for the recognition of "Rare disciplines" has been accompanied by reflection with universities, organisations and national evaluation and funding agencies. The question of the methods and means to support these specialities is now particularly acute: how can we effectively support the renewal of the necessary discipline pools for the transmission of knowledge, for training and for research?

Intervening in favour of "Rare Disciplines" implies solving both very concrete questions linked to institutional policies and building analyses on training needs or the evolution of sciences. The question of the boundaries of a speciality is often thorny: is it a speciality in its own right or a sub-field whose autonomy is questionable? Should the specificity of a rare discipline be recognised or should the dynamics of cooperation between disciplines be encouraged? The naming of a speciality can be tricky, for example in the field of ancient worlds, given the different conceptions of geographical areas and time eras.

You are working together across nations with Arbeitsstelle Kleine Fächer and the German Rectors 'Conference (HRK). Why is cross-national collaboration on the topic of rare disciplines worthwhile and what challenges do you see?

Cooperation with the MAKF is fundamental because the maturity of the system on the German side allows precious time to be saved in adapting the observation methodology. Many questions have already been decided and understanding how the debates were organised, how difficulties were overcome, or not, avoids falling into the same ruts. The analysis of the criteria used by MAKF has given rise to many questions and discussions. The subject is still ongoing, as our quantitative criteria are still being tested. Our first "Rare Disciplines" are mostly located in one institution. As time goes by, we observe that a rare discipline can be represented in several institutions but always with a small number of academics. The question of the maximum number of academics to be recognised as a Rare Discipline has not yet found a definitive answer. We are still at the beginning of the process and this criterion will need to be revised according to the cases that we will encounter as we examine the applications for recognition as a Rare Discipline. A little flexibility is needed at the beginning of such a process. This is why the observation status set up by the MAKF seems interesting: it allows time to consider the evolution of the specialty, the reaction of the scientific community, of the institutions and eventually to reconsider the decision taken by the "Rare Disciplines" Steering Committee.

One challenge will be to observe whether a speciality that seems at first sight to be equivalent on the French and German sides actually covers the same scientific realities on both sides, with a view to drawing up a Franco-German mapping.

Finally, it will be interesting to observe the differences between the criteria for defining a rare discipline and a kleines Fach after the constitution of the French mapping of disciplines.

France Universités has followed this process from the beginning, with 3 presidents who were members of the France Universités board in 2014 and who were responsible for drawing up the report that was used to launch the process by the Minister at the time. This subject is regularly addressed in the exchanges that take place every year between FU and the HRK. In the new organisation set up at the end of 2022, the Research Council of France University has appointed a president to be responsible for monitoring this important issue. Emmanuelle Garnier, President of the University of Toulouse II, has taken on this position. The President and the members of the France Universités board regularly exchange with the Minister's cabinet and the Ministry's departments on this subject, in order to move the dossier forward. The issue is also followed by the members of the permanent team and by research advisors/scientific advisors. The objective of Frances Universités is to allow the identification of "Rare disciplines" and to help the member institutions to have a policy favourable to their maintenance or development. France Universités is also in favour of extending collaboration between presidents' conferences at the European level by using the strong partnership with the HRK to encourage development on a European scale.

Philippe Casella, Caroline Censier-Calmus und Paul Indelicato sind Mitglieder in den Steuerungsgremien zur Koordination der Strategien für Hochschulbildung und berufliche Eingliederung (DGESIP) und für Forschung und Innovation (DGRI) des Ministeriums für Bildung, Hochschulbildung und Forschung (Ministère de l'Éducation nationale, de l'Enseignement supérieur et de la Recherche).

Lektorat Englisch: S. Thornton