Howard Davies on French plans that could cost UK dear

Howard Davies and Maria Zhivitskaya say critics of a new law allowing foreign-language instruction are fighting lost Proustian battles

June 13, 2013

Source: Ian Summers

Fioraso is recognising the reality of postgraduate education in Europe today. Our Sciences Po students look for jobs worldwide, not just in France or Belgium

Almost 20 years ago Jacques Toubon, who was then the minister of culture in France, passed a law that mandated the use of French in all government publications and in the advertisements and websites of commercial bodies. The law has been widely ignored, although a couple of American companies have been fined for egregious breaches. Toubon himself has passed into history as a figure of fun, once famously greeted by a group of French students singing “Happy Birthday, Mister Allgood”.

How times have changed. Now the minister of higher education, Geneviève Fioraso, is sponsoring a law to allow French universities to use foreign languages if they are teaching a European programme or in partnership with a foreign institution. She argues that only around 1 per cent of courses will be affected in the first instance, but she has nonetheless been roundly abused by the Académie Française for her pains, and accused of an act of sabotage against the French language.

Her response was that market pressures demanded the change and that she did not want French higher education to be about five people sitting round a table discussing Proust. That argument seemed to clinch it in the Chambre des Députés, which has now approved the law. The Proustian faction was out at tea when the vote was taken.

There are far worse things one can do with one’s time than debate Proust, but for us the change in the law comes as a relief. As (part-time) faculty members of Sciences Po, where we have taught courses in English for the past two years, we have sometimes felt guilty about not making more of an effort to be Parisian. But we can offer two defences for our anglophonia. First, the majority of our students could not follow the course in French, even if we could make a stab at teaching it. Perhaps a third are francophone; the rest are a liquorice-allsorts mixture from all parts of the planet. Their corridor and coffee-bar language is English, even though they are typically learning French on the side. Sciences Po is a London School of Economics en Seine these days.

Second, the common language of monetary policy and financial regulation, which we teach, is English. No doubt the Académie Française has dreamed up some alternatives, but even the French talk of “les derivatives vendus par les hedge funds”, which is no doubt why the official language of the Paris stock exchange is English. The same is true of the European Central Bank, even though the British won’t join in.

So Fioraso has made honest women of us, so to speak. At the same time, she is recognising the reality of much postgraduate education in Europe today. The Dutch and the Scandinavians have long taught master’s programmes in English; the French and Germans are getting there. Already there are more than 400 master’s programmes in English on offer in France, and over 500 in Germany. They know that the labour market is demanding it. Our Sciences Po students look for jobs around the globe, not just in France, Belgium, Geneva or Quebec. And even those who take jobs in Paris often then find themselves working in English, which is de rigueur at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development these days, and at the new European Securities and Markets Authority, based in the rue de Grenelle.

British universities can, therefore, choose to look at this change in one of two ways. They can see it as a recognition of the superiority of their own product, and a flattering imitation. Together with the changes brought by the process, it is an indication that European higher education is going our way – no more complicated offerings like the old French agrégation. Or they can note that the more significant consequence is that the competition for mobile foreign students is hotting up. Not so long ago, English language master’s programmes on the Continent were a rarity; now they are offered by some highly ranked institutions, in cities in which it is not exactly a punishment to study, and at a price far below the UK equivalents. Offering courses in English will help French universities climb the university league tables, where they have so far been lowly ranked, with only one institution in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings top 100.

Add in the high cost of living in London, and an ever-tightening visa regime, and the UK’s competitive disadvantages begin to mount up. Of course, Paris doesn’t have a mayor with the joie de vivre of our incumbent, but that may not be a sufficiently powerful offset.

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Reader's comments (1)

The French for "les derivatives vendus par les hedge funds" is "les produits derives vendus par les fonds speculatifs" (apology for my English keyboard that lacks the accents). As always in policymaking, the headlines tend to oversimplify the realities of legislate choices. While teaching in English is valid for Sciences Po, which as the article says, trains young people who are likely to work globally and in English, the matter is very different for a vast number of others, and there is as much irrationality among those who favour English in French and German universities, as there is among those who oppose it. Consider the few prestigious centres that exist in France and attract an international crowd. Some, like Sciences Po, are in direct competition with English-speaking institutions. But given the choice between Sciences Po and the LSE, to choose the former, you would have to have reasons to be interested in France - would anyone choose to go there for its English education? Some others, such as Polytechnique, offer a highly technical scientific education - there language is immaterial, as it was for my Mathematics as a student. And finally, some, like the Musee de l'Homme, still use the linguistic barrier as a tool, developing reflection away from a global international community in order to deliver it more fully formed. In the latter, the shift to English can disrupt a very successful model. A key risk of this policy is that the only access to the best higher education becomes through English; while allowing the use of English in French higher education is, in itself, reasonable, the legislator has not reflected on the effects this has on access to education, and on the continued capability of the many to handle, in a language they understand fully, concepts that matter to their collective future. Democracy is, in a sense, in danger when voters do not remember a word in their language for "hedge fund" and fantasise on its possible meaning instead. In many cases, to substitute high quality speech in German, French and others, with poor English by non-native speakers, is not an improvement; the inclusion of English papers and the discussion of language as part of study is a better alternative. Allowing English does not forbid good judgement of course; but too many non-English speakers, and English-only speakers, believe in a quasi-magical effect of English on scholarship. The use of study in English as an alternative to improving tuition is inevitable, and disastrous. This is even truer of the vast majority of young people who study in Higher Education in non-English speaking countries. Those who have not learned it well enough as a second or third language are effectively barred from entry. It is a waste of talent, and would be a failure of any country's policy to deprive its young people of its best education as it seeks an international prestige. I have no doubt allowing two English speakers who visit a French institution with an international intake, to teach in English, is an improvement for all and a relief to them. However, the change is neither self-evident nor entirely positive. As always, the devil hides in the detail, and there are reasons to doubt the universal wisdom of that choice.

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