Leader: Autonomy must be the goal

Universities need to be free from government control if they are to succeed in providing the education demanded of them

December 3, 2009

Students blockaded campuses. Universities were paralysed as academics went on strike for months. University rectors were even taken hostage by students in two dramatic (albeit brief) incidents.

The deeply bitter, but unsuccessful, protests earlier this year against higher education reform in France have left the sector, and the wider international university community, facing searching questions.

Most agree that there is a need for serious reform of the French system. Outside the elite grandes écoles, France's public universities suffer underfunding, overcrowding and high student dropout rates. It is a source of national shame that the country fares so badly in world university rankings.

After trying and failing to resist reform, and losing public support in the process, French academics must look at their own "cynicism and fatalism", argue Michele Lamont of Harvard University and Bruno Cousin of Harvard and Sciences Po Paris in our cover story.

But a key cause of the uproar in France - President Nicolas Sarkozy's moves to give greater autonomy to universities - is a crucial and increasingly pressing issue for the whole of European higher education, and beyond.

Under the Freedoms and Responsibilities Law, 20 of France's 85 universities were given greater freedom from state control from January 2009; the rest will follow by 2012. The institutions were given control over their budgets, hiring and firing, working hours, plus staff salaries and bonuses.

The French academy resisted these changes for a number of reasons. It has a deep-seated cultural attachment to the State, dating back to its Revolutionary role as a secular defender against the power of the Church. There is rightly strong support for education as a public good, and many academics were (and are) worried about business-driven managerialism creeping into the sector. More immediately, there was concern that giving too much power to university managers could erode academics' individual autonomy.

But despite President Sarkozy's controversial handling of the reforms, the idea of giving universities more power to run their own affairs is surely one to be supported.

At a time of international financial crisis, when demand for flexible provision of higher education to an ever more diverse range of students is increasing and when serious public funding constraints affect all, universities need freedom to be entrepreneurial and compete with new and unconventional providers.

The report this week from the European University Association, University Autonomy in Europe, serves as a timely reminder of the issue. It paints a bleak picture of universities in Europe persistently blighted by overweening state control, despite government rhetoric.

A number of European countries prevent universities owning - and therefore selling - their buildings, ban them from investing their income, and stop them setting their own staff pay levels and career opportunities. This lack of autonomy, the EUA warns, "is a real threat to the sustainability of Europe's 5,000-plus universities".

What President Sarkozy has done in France has obviously not been popular with academics. But history may prove that he was right on one fundamental principle - universities must be autonomous from government.


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