Marc Sellam is President and CEO of IONIS Education Group. A graduate from ESME Sudria class of 1974, he began his career in the telecommunications industry. From 1976 to 1980, he held the position of Chief Inspector at the Directorate for Higher Education in Telecommunications (DEST). In 1980 he founded the Institut Supérieur Européen de Gestion (ISEG Paris), the first of the schools that would eventually form IONIS Education Group in 2002.
You often say, even when it comes to teaching issues, that constant questioning is a value that you hold dear. Do you believe that nothing should ever be taken for granted?
It is something that is enshrined in our history. If we had not chosen to re-evaluate things, and question ourselves with the start of each new academic year, we would not be where we are today. We are lucky enough to welcome a new generation every year. And in order to keep up with the changes in our environment, we need to anticipate them. We need to constantly evolve in order to keep pace, and ask ourselves: “And tomorrow?”
Well tomorrow is a young person who, by enrolling in a school, wants to play an integral role in their training. Young people no longer wish to be isolated within their school, they aspire to create their own professional network, speak English, travel, and flourish, as well as forging connections. Their future is at stake. They need to learn to learn differently, to think. School is not just about accumulating knowledge. You don't come out conditioned. That is why we must constantly anticipate and innovate, while imagining the future. I never accept the obvious. Our connections to the businesses that will take on our graduates in the future are essential and help us in this approach. They are at the heart of our values; something that we are determined about now more than ever. We do not do it for the fun, nor to keep up with the times without prior thought. And of course we uphold the fundamentals. By definition in education we are constantly learning. How can we pass on values without applying them ourselves?
How do you feel about the current crisis?
The crisis will unquestionably amplify, and we will experience difficult years on the economic front. The costs of living for students, starting with accommodation, will be an increasing burden on the budget of families and parents. We cannot therefore ignore this factor in our reasoning. Now more than ever, choosing a school is not a matter of chance: students enrol by choice because they expect high-quality training, professional opportunities, and a rich, animated and a highly developed student life. We try to really limit the rising cost of education at a time when it literally seems to be soaring to ever greater heights. Yes, we pay great attention to administration and our expenses so that they do not place a burden on the cost of studies.
After the regionalisation, what should we expect from a new phase of international growth within your schools?
We are at a stage where we can no longer turn back. If we have one priority in our development it is the international dimension. In the coming years, we will successfully establish ourselves abroad. Not in terms of partnerships or agreements: we already have over 250 partners overseas with new additions every year. What I want above all is for us to open several centres, particularly in the United States and in Asia.
We need to offer IONIS Education Group training programmes on site, abroad. We are currently looking for locations to set up a presence and are also considering a takeover of schools and institutions. Our internationalisation drive also concerns the hosting of foreign students in France, who arrive in increasing numbers every year. We will gain greater visibility by being on site.
In recent years we have seen a strong extension of your schools in the French regions. Why?
This commitment has formed part of the Group’s DNA from the very beginning. The ISEG Group began its regional expansion in 1986. We have adopted a specific model: a multi-pronged, decentralised approach, operating in several cities. At the same time we want to offer different training programmes, grouped within a single campus, always at the heart of the city.
This is a choice we have made to give an impetus to our Group. We believe that there is a ‘normal’ size for a school, with year groups of a maximum of 150 to 200 students, except in certain cases. Sheer size is not an aim for us, far from it. Nowadays, students from the provinces do not necessarily want to spend five years studying in Paris. In a way it is a ‘double punishment’ for them, as their accommodation costs as much as their studies, perhaps even more. Nevertheless, mobility is natural today, and necessary. It is something students aspire to. We want them to be faced with a triple experience during their five years of study: regional, national and international. And current technological resources help us with this physical and intellectual mobility.
Being located in the city centre is a priority for you. Is it not a luxury nowadays?
Undoubtedly, but it is a choice that is specific to the Group and its culture. Being on the outskirts of a city presents a number of drawbacks where students, who find themselves excluded from many aspects of life, are concerned. We choose to be in the nerve centre of cities, where things happen.
Maintaining or opening a school in the city centre has a cost, it’s true, but it also has value. It is a choice that we fully accept and which has numerous advantages for our students, their families and their quality of life. And finally it is a service. “Different schools at the heart of the city” could be one of our mottos.
Even though you are a major player in the private higher education sector, you consider public universities as both a model and the competition...
Education is not a product like any other. What the State does, its education model, should not be neglected or scorned. When I look at the development of research and what is imposed on us, I do not see it as a constraint but, on the contrary, as an added value. We develop this aspect in our schools to a great extent, because innovation stems from research and we want all of our schools to work in synergy on research. Yet public universities are ahead of us in this area, even if only in terms of resources. Not copying this model would be suicidal. We have certain duties in training more than 18,000 students per year. And we accept that.
Do you intend to extend your training offer to other sectors?
Our sector is increasingly competitive. While public universities have become an increasingly multidisciplinary player, we have also expanded our training offer by diversifying it and grouping it within our urban campuses. Of course, there are still things lacking within our Group. Public universities therefore remain our model for their multidisciplinary aspect, because that is the future. In the long term, I hope that when a student joins one of our schools, we can offer them a second chance to change schools if they realise that they were made for computing whereas they had enrolled in commerce or investment, for example. That is why we are developing the links between schools.
How will the Group develop?
As I often say, I would like for us to become a global group. I would like for us to be present in all areas of training, from ‘7 to 77 years of age’; for us to be an educational partner throughout life. We are among those who contribute to building the knowledge society; it is a chance and an honour. Taking an interest in an individual for merely a few years without worrying about what they will become is a strategic error and a vision that we do not adhere to. Our duty, our moral contract, does not come to an end on the day of a student’s graduation. That is why our Group will continue to position itself as a lifelong companion and player in the training sector. And naturally, digital technology will be at the core of our schools.