French are moving forward

September 4, 2008

Reading Zoe McKenzie's opinion piece about French universities' lack of autonomy and success in global rankings ("The Gallic exception: it is time for a giraffe of a system to evolve", 21 August), I was surprised to find no reference at all to two of the most radical reforms in France's higher education system since 1984, both of which are now getting under way.

Last year, the National Assembly passed the LRU - loi relative aux Libertes et Responsabilites des Universites (Universities' Freedom and Responsibilities law) - which by 2012 will have given all French universities powers to spend their own budgets, recruit and decide pay levels of their staff and take over ownership of their buildings. These were all state-controlled functions until now.

They will be able to create foundations in partnership with companies to generate extra funding, and their governing boards have been renewed with fewer members but an increased proportion representing outside interests, including businesses. Valerie Pecresse, the Higher Education and Research Minister, recently announced the first 20 (of 85) universities to qualify for autonomy from January 2009.

The second initiative, Operation Campus, is intended to solve the problem of France's abysmal showing in international rankings, and designed to fulfil President Nicolas Sarkozy's ambition to create at least ten French "centres of excellence of higher education and research" that will place France among the highest ranking universities in the world by 2012.

Ten "super campuses", each an alliance of several universities, grandes ecoles and research centres, will share EUR5 billion (£4.05 billion) of state funding to bring them up to required standards. They were selected earlier this year after stiff competition. So while France might need to "find a new way forward", it might have been worth reporting on what is currently taking place there.

Stephen Jessel, Paris.

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