From where I sit - Moving in for the kill

December 4, 2008

One of the larger-than-life billboards to be seen recently on the Paris Metro features a battered London bobby under a giant sign reading "Arretez de massacrer l'anglais!" (Stop massacring (the) English!).

Touting the services, inevitably, of a language school, it is a pretty funny advertisement if you spend large parts of your week reading English which has the consistency of shepherd's pie and the clarity of pea soup.

As I am a relative newcomer to the French higher education system, it is a source of some puzzlement to me why lecturers and professors here do not demand access to some of the working conditions enjoyed by their contemporaries elsewhere. Simple things such as a dedicated desk, computer or laptop, and reliable university-based email would be a good start. I have a sneaking suspicion that language, and in particular massacred English, has something to do with it.

Few academics in French universities have taught outside France. Under the auspices of Erasmus, they are encouraged to, and more than 2,000 a year do spend a few weeks in another European university as a guest lecturer. But very few leave France to teach for longer periods of time.

There are many reasons for this lack of mobility. First, the system does not encourage or reward long periods away. Secondly, personal circumstances, such as family commitments, not to mention administrative challenges - accommodation, banking, health cover - often push the option into the basket marked "too difficult".

The third reason is language skills. These remain a critical issue for France - and not only in academic circles. Statistics published last month put the English-language skills of the French on par with those of the Hungarians and Spanish, and well below those of the Dutch, Danes and Finns.

One cannot help but wonder whether the situation would change for the better if more teaching staff gained extensive experience elsewhere, and if French academics, collectively, were to say, "This just isn't good enough".

Le Monde recently carried an eloquent protest of the "this just isn't good enough" variety from Jacques Blamont - but unfortunately it was published deep into France's month-long summer holiday.

Professor Blamont has taught at University of Paris VI, the Ecole Normale Superieure and Caltech in California over many decades and is thereby well placed to make comparisons between the higher education systems in France and the United States.

In his piece, Professor Blamont argued for an unthinkable revolution in French universities: the introduction of student fees, the imposition of a vigorous selection process, and greater contributions from the private sector. The latter, he argued, would be attracted only by a teaching corps that is high quality and, above all, mobile.

Of course, his article provoked an outcry: his arguments were largely rejected, his analysis dismissed as being too simplistic, and his detractors claimed that more public money is the only solution to the problems he identified.

In English, it must be said, we too often massacre sayings that could only have come to us from the French: "Plu sa change, plu say la meme shoes."

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