With companies cutting back on office space as working from home remains popular, Europe’s biggest business district is looking to students to fill the void left by workers.
Some 50 educational institutions have set up at La Defense, home to glass and metal high-rises and a huge modernist archway on the western outskirts of Paris.
Covid lockdowns emptied offices and with most companies still allowing employees to partially work from home, the number of staff toiling in offices has never fully recovered in business districts around the world.
The work-from-home movement contributed to the financial troubles that led to this week’s bankruptcy filing by US shared-office startup WeWork.
While occupancy rates have held up relatively well at La Defense, the area will have more office space to fill as a number of new buildings are under construction.
The business district has hustled to woo small and medium-sized companies while also turning to schools to diversify its client base and liven up an area that is home to banking, insurance and energy firms.
“Universities have been present at La Defense for a long time, but it has accelerated a lot in the last 10 to 15 years,” said Pierre-Yves Guice, head of Paris La Defense, a public institution that manages the business district.
For the past few months, the area has shown its “desire to complete its transformation into a place of student life and activity”, Guice said.
Some 70,000 students now consider La Defense their campus.
The latest arrivals are private schools from other French regions that specialise in management and business and want to plant their flags in the capital.
“It’s La Defense or nothing because that’s where the companies are, being Europe’s top business district is significant,” said Florence Legros, head of ICN Business School.
The school, based in the eastern city of Nancy, opened its La Defense campus in 2018.
Students see the same attraction.
“My goal is to work in banks, so I didn’t hesitate. I immediately chose La Defense,” Matteo Buonamici, 24, an Italian student at the IESEG graduate business school.
“Paris is way more important for the resume,” he said.
IESEG’s main campus is in France’s northern city of Lille but its logo features on a building next to a tower housing French banking giant Societe Generale.
“We came here to be closer to the companies, and to be more visible in terms of recruitment of students and international partnerships,” said Caroline Roussel, head of IESEG, which has been present at La Defense since 2008.
Omnes Education, which unites 15 higher education institutions, opened its La Defense campus in September 2022, also with the goal of bringing its students closer to companies.
“When the students are in classes they can see managers working through the opposite windows,” said Christophe Boisseau, head of the ESCE business school.
He said there is a “mimicking effect” as students assimilate with the business culture.
All work and no play
Caroline Nachtwey at commercial realtor CBRE said being in the business district improves job prospects for students but is also advantageous for the schools as rents are slightly cheaper than in the centre of Paris.
Office building owners have welcomed the influx of schools as finding new tenants has become more difficult since the pandemic.
Schools “are very serious players who make long-term contracts and pay on time”, said Nachtwey.
But the district needs to adapt further.
“There are things missing for it to be a real campus with a full range of experience and services for students that schools could legitimately want,” Guice said.
The closest subsidised university cafeteria is located in a neighbouring town.
There are also few establishments in the area that cater to those on a student budget. Few stay in La Defense to have a drink after classes.
“Sports facilities, eateries, places to relax and housing are the four issues that need to be addressed,” said Guillaume de Rendinger, head of IESEG’s La Defense campus.
The schools are trying to provide some of the facilities themselves.
In addition to the state-of-the-art connected classrooms, Omnes Education’s building in La Defense offers a cafeteria, a recreation area with arcade games and ping-pong tables, plenty of couches to unwind and outdoor terraces.
Student housing is also sparse, but the area doesn’t appeal to many students at the moment.
“I wouldn’t want to live in La Defense even if I could,” said ESCE student Chloe Gaillard.
“There isn’t any life here,” Carla Albiges, another ESCE student, before hurrying back into the skyscraper for class.