In 2002, France’s Loi de Modernisation Sociale (Law of Social Modernization) of 17 January 2002 specifically authorized universities and other “établissements d’enseignement supérieurs” (higher education institutions) to grant degrees based entirely on an assessment of the candidate’s work experience. The process is known in French as Validation des Acquis de l’Expérience (VAE).
The VAE has since been incorporated into the French Code of Education (Legislative Part, Third Part, Book VI, Title I, Chapter III, Section 2, Art. L613-3 to L613-6.) It is important to note that Art L613-4 states: “The validation produces the same effects as the knowledge or aptitude testing process that it replaces.” Moreover, the academic titles granted through VAE are identical to those gained by conventional study and any mention of VAE in those titles is considered discriminatory and is prohibited by law. All universities and other higher education institutions in France are legally required to apply the VAE if requested.
VAE has proved extremely popular in France. The candidate, who must have a minimum of three years of work experience, submits a portfolio of achievement which is then considered by a jury of professors, who meet either in person or electronically. Any false document submitted by the candidate during the process carries the possibility of heavy fines and three years imprisonment.
The wider French-speaking world has also embraced VAE. Those countries that are members of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie typically include educational institutions that operate according to the French education system. In 2004, I was a candidate for the VAE process at the Université Francophone Robert de Sorbon. This institution was a virtual university, specializing exclusively in VAE, that was accredited by the government of Anjouan, which was one of the members of the Union of the Comoros and a member of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie. The university was also incorporated as a nonprofit corporation in the state of Maine, USA (charter no. 20040586ND). Maine exempted privately-owned nonprofit correspondence schools from licensing under Maine Department of Education Rule #05-071, CMR 150, 2A.
The jury for my VAE assessment had as its Dean the President of the University, Christian Jean-Noël Prade, a French expatriate resident in the United States who uses the registered business name John Thomas. He earned his DES at the Universitê de Paris II and undertook further studies in education at Harvard, leading to extensive work in foreign credential evaluation and American university admissions for foreign students. In 1988, he was decorated by the President of France as a Chevalier of the Ordre National du Mérite. He was a veteran of the political Right in France, being a founder of the Union Défense Group (GUD), the leading direct action organization of the Right in opposition to the Paris 68 left-wing student riots. He was also a noted sportsman, having completed the Cresta Run on multiple occasions and endowed a trophy at the event.
Dr Thomas was assisted on the jury by Dr Maria de Lourdes Nunes and by the Vice-Dean of Arts, Régis Bouvier de Cachard. Bouvier de Cachard was a symbolist and magic realist artist who had been acclaimed by critics in the 1960s and 1970s and whose works were to be found in the Tate Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, among others.
>>Bouvier de Cachard, by Colin Wilson (author of “The Outsider”, etc.)
The jury decided to award me the degree of Docteur ès Lettres en Humanités with the highest accolade of mention très honorable (equivalent to summa cum laude).
Unfortunately the University was to be short-lived, and it closed the following year. It had been replaced, however, by a new French institution, the Ecole Supérieure Robert de Sorbon. This was registered in France as a non-profit association under the law of 1901, and is classified in the French education system as an “établissement d’enseignement supérieur privé” (private institution of higher education). In France, the opening of higher education to the private sector means that under article L-731-14 of the Code of Education, private institutions may offer programmes and grant academic titles (the French system does not have an exact equivalent to the word “degree”). They are prevented from using the designation “université” and certain academic titles (baccalaureat, license, master and doctorat) are forbidden from use on pain of fines. Other academic titles (DEUG, DES, MBA, PhD for example) may be used freely. There are many institutions in the category of établissements d’enseignement supérieur privés, particularly business schools, of which INSEAD is probably the most famous.
The official and legal status of academic awards made by the Ecole Supérieure Robert de Sorbon and other établissements d’enseignement supérieur privés is that of certificats (or diplômes) d’enseignement supérieur privés. These awards are distinct from titres ou grades universitaires (university titles or levels) which may only be awarded by public, state universities. Certificats d’enseignement supérieur privés are covered by the Lisbon Convention on the recognition of credentials in Europe and may be designated as representing any postsecondary level of achievement.
There are several schemes by which certificats d’enseignement supérieur privés can be given further recognition by the French Ministry of National Education. These include homologation in which a given curriculum is submitted for approval by the authorities, leading to the recognition of that specific award by the Ministry. However, awards made by VAE are prima facie ineligible for these schemes, since there is no curriculum to be recognized and the institution only administers the VAE assessment without needing to deliver classes. For this reason, the certificats d’enseignement supérieur issued by the Ecole Supérieure Robert de Sorbon are fully legal French academic awards in their own right, but are not awards carrying official recognition from the Ministry of National Education. Their comparability to other academic awards is inevitably subjective, but certainly some authorities both within and outside France have considered them to be comparable to accredited degrees.
>>Attestation by the French Embassy in Greece stating that the Ecole Supérieure Robert de Sorbon is an établissement d’enseignement supérieur privé functioning under the control of the French State (2008).
As a graduate of the Université Francophone Robert de Sorbon, I received a reciprocal award from the Ecole Supérieure Robert de Sorbon in November 2004.
In 2009, a government-accredited university in Costa Rica agreed to accept my ESRDS PhD as the basis for a doctorate awarded by incorporation.
In 2014, the Ecole Supérieure Robert de Sorbon was granted a trademark and consequent legal protection for its name by the French authorities. It is one of a number of French institutions named after Robert de Sorbon, the chaplain of King St Louis IX.
The concept of a specialist VAE institution, particularly one operating solely by distance learning, is pioneering and has proved highly controversial, attracting particular opposition from the education establishment both within and outside France. Inevitably, given the leftist nature of this establishment, there is a negative focus on the political affiliations and personal profile of Dr Thomas. Nevertheless, the Ecole Supérieure Robert de Sorbon has shown itself willing to enter into this controversy and to defend its position. As of 2020 it was celebrating its sixteenth anniversary.