From where I sit - An agenda of despair

June 18, 2009

As you enter Lille III (the Universite Charles de Gaulle's arts faculty), you are greeted with the words "Le Capitalisme etouffe nos facs! Tuons-le!" ("Capitalism is suffocating our universities! Let's kill it!") spray-painted on the pavement.

The graffiti, and barricades made up of tables and chairs, summed up the character of the blockade that ran at Lille III from 23 March to 18 May. Lectures were cancelled and entrances were guarded by les bloqueurs, student activists who allowed only staff and postgraduate students through their checkpoints.

Students occupied the university buildings to resist the Liberties and Responsibilities of Universities (LRU) law, which was passed on 11 August 2007 and is set to be implemented in 2010-12.

Forty-three of France's 83 universities have been affected by student and staff strike action since January this year. The blockade of the final university affected, the University of Toulouse II (Le Mirail), ended on 3 June when activists were ejected by the French riot police, who had been called in by Daniel Filatre, the University of Toulouse II's president.

Under Operation Campus, as the LRU law is known, the French higher education budget will gain an extra EUR5 billion (£4.3 billion) over five years, but staff and students across the country are not buying into the idea.

The reforms already in place at 20 institutions since January 2009 give more power to university presidents and introduce more rigorous financial controls. Salaries are capped and teacher-training students lose their second year of paid training while still having to complete a two-year masters course.

A new recruitment process for academic staff threatens tenure, while a national-level assessment exerts more pressure on institutions, with government funding allocated according to examination performance.

These represent fundamental changes, although the reality is that the French higher education system is not and never has been egalitarian.

The elitist and highly prestigious Grandes Ecoles, the French equivalent of the US Ivy League institutions, provide well-structured, intensive courses, but accept only 4 per cent of students.

The alternative system (the universities) could be successful if it provided a high-quality service, but it lacks resources while students and staff lack motivation. Just 40 per cent of students complete their degrees in three years.

The reasons are not hard to find. The most critical problem is not the lack of funding but the poverty of the student experience.

There is nothing to motivate students, and their hard work goes unacknowledged. They enter unnoticed and exit unnoticed. There are no union buildings, no winter or summer balls, no graduation day - not even a handshake.

Their degrees are seen as second class compared with the qualifications of high-flying Grandes Ecoles graduates. Only through blockades and the re-enactment of the myth of 1968 can some students find significance.

But the soixante-huitards had clear political objectives. Today's movement is less focused and its only agenda is despair.

The paradox is that by trying to save their universities from change, les bloqueurs threaten to destroy them.

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