Liberté, egalité, autonomie: Do French universities want more freedom?

Despite incremental reforms throughout Emmanuel Macron’s first term as president, France still has one of the most centralised higher education systems in Europe. As the election looms, Ben Upton examines attitudes towards institutional autonomy and asks whether its supposed effects on equality and academic freedom are limiting appetite for more

March 31, 2022
Source: Getty

Higher education institutions in France have more control over their affairs than at any time in their history. A series of reforms in the past two decades has granted them ever greater discretion over their own governance, staffing and admissions.

But they are still only “halfway” through their transformation, President Emmanuel Macron told an audience of university leaders in January. If re-elected in April, he has promised even more powers for university leaders, further tempering a statist higher education ideal that has existed since the revolution. And polls suggest that Macron will be offered the chance to follow through: over the past six months, he has sat comfortably ahead of rivals, despite only recently having declared his formal candidacy.

“The main idea is to give more autonomy, but with some limits,” says Frédéric Forest, a senior civil servant in the French higher education ministry and a researcher at the Université de Paris.

A notable example is the 2018 decree loosening the rules under which institutions elect their presidents, such that candidates no longer need to be faculty members. “It opens up quite a lot of possibility in terms of how to organise higher education institutions,” says Christine Musselin, a CNRS research professor at the Sciences Po Centre for the Sociology of Organisations. She says the freedom to elect external leadership candidates has already been exercised by several universities, as well as by grandes écoles, France’s smaller, selective higher education institutions focused on the professions.

University autonomy had already been increasing prior to Macron, under governments of both the Left and the Right. But it hasn’t always been embraced by institutions. One of Macron’s presidential opponents happens to be Valérie Pécresse, the minister for higher education under the centre-right government of Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2007, she oversaw a major reform that beefed up the role of presidents in university governance, handed institutions control of their salary budgets and allowed them to set up charitable foundations to top up staff salaries. However, a 2021 study by France’s Court of Auditors found that institutions had made scant use of these powers, with only €17.6 million raised by salary-supplementing foundations over 10 years.

“When you ask [universities], they say they want autonomy,” says Manuel Tunon de Lara, who heads the university presidents’ conference, France Universities. “But when you look at the facts and the manner in which they are organised, they demonstrate that they can’t always assume autonomy. In some universities, they have their community – students, professors in some disciplines – [who] are not convinced autonomy is a good approach.”

For Musselin, the “very specific history” of the French higher education system, which has “always been part of the action of the state”, helps explain why the appetite for autonomy has been patchy. After the revolution of 1789, the medieval universities that stood in France’s major cities were disrupted or disbanded entirely. In the following years, political energy went instead into establishing grandes écoles. These were modelled on the Paris School of Mines (now known as Mines ParisTech and part of Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris), which was founded before the revolution in 1783 to prepare engineers for the mining industry. “They developed an idea of higher education that should be really in service of society and should train people that would be able to develop the economy of France,” says Musselin.

In the following decades, Napoleon kept university faculties under the tight control of a national academic board in Paris, which strictly defined their curricula. “You have this kind of discipline-based management of the French university system, which you can find until [the mass student protests of] 1968,” Musselin says.

French President Emmanuel Macron visits a campus in Paris

Another of Macron’s presidential rivals, the left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, “wants to go back to the Napoleonic university”, says Andrée Sursock, a senior adviser to the European University Association. Mélenchon’s election manifesto seeks to “open a debate” about restoring the National Council of Universities’ responsibility for “certification”, a pre-recruitment process currently carried out by institutions.

But Karin Fischer, a professor of Irish and British studies at the University of Orléans who helped develop Mélenchon’s higher education plans, denies that this will lead to “a horrible new, purely national system”. Instead, it will address the fact that the current split of responsibilities between hiring institutions and the state leaves candidates vulnerable to local nepotism. “There’s so many drawbacks with the system now. We just want to explore ways of making it actually streamlined and possibly more efficient,” she says.

Mélenchon trails his centrist and right-wing rivals in the polls, but those sceptical of devolving decision-making to institutions can find other attractions in his programme, such as the dismantling of the Parcoursup, an algorithmic system introduced by Macron in 2018, which steers French school-leavers towards a suitable university course.

“The possibility has been given for universities to ‘orient’ the students; I shouldn’t say ‘select’ because it’s not a selection process,” says Musselin. Nevertheless, she says, many see it as a selection process and oppose it on that basis, despite its boosting completion rates for first-year undergraduates from 40 to 47.5 per cent in its inaugural year.

Admissions are often considered a key part of autonomy. But while grandes écoles have always been highly selective, France has historically prided itself on not permitting its universities to select. And while that odd dichotomy has endured for many decades, the gilets jaunes protests of 2018 and 2019 highlighted that fair access remains a very touchy subject in French society. The protests resulted in Macron pledging to abolish his own alma mater, the École Nationale d’Administration, the grande école known for churning out France’s political and business elites.

Meanwhile, Macron was forced to clarify his remarks in the current election campaign that France cannot have higher education with “no price” for “almost all” students. This prompted weeks of worried speculation about tuition fees, before Macron clarified that he “never said” he would introduce or increase them. “He tested the water, but the water was cold,” says Musselin.

Academics themselves are also very lukewarm regarding institutional autonomy. Indeed, many see it as being in opposition to their personal autonomy. Academics “don’t say ‘I’m anti-autonomy’: they say ‘I’m for the autonomy of the academic profession’, which is quite different,” says Musselin. They regard their status as public servants as a guarantee of their academic freedom, she adds.

This dynamic suppresses French academics’ identification with their home institutions, says the EUA’s Sursock, noting that academics in Paris “change from one organisation to another very easily”. For academics elsewhere, the state is a pleasingly distant master: “It’s much more comfortable for you as a staff member if you’re being managed from some central point in Paris, far away,” says Sursock. France’s history of siloed, faculty-based central management also dilutes institutional identity, Sursock adds; French academics “will certainly identify more strongly with their discipline”.

Worries about institutional autonomy tend to be strongest in the social sciences and humanities, according to both Musselin and Tunon de Lara. “They feel that the structures and the kind of governance people are trained to introduce come from the sciences and are imposed on them with this perspective of the sciences,” says Musselin. A distrusted metric-based management approach is frequently seen as part and parcel of the recent reforms that have enhanced the power of institutional presidents.

There are also concerns about the financial implications of institutional autonomy. “If it ultimately resulted in a financial withdrawal from the state, it would force universities to increase their own resources,” says Emmanuelle Garnier, president of the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès, which specialises in the humanities. But while institutions that are strong in areas with obvious economic benefit are able to win project funding from the National Research Agency or the European Union, “the humanities cannot”, Garnier says.

“When you hear the word ‘autonomy’, it sounds like a good thing, but the idea that the autonomy should be that of the head of the university is completely different from the notion of individual academic freedom,” agrees Orléans’ Fischer. For her, the 2007 reform was a watershed. “The moment the university president has the power over what you might research, what you might teach, your academic freedom is bound to be constrained,” she says.

Aside from changing relationships, that reform altered the make-up of institutions. Previously, university heads had always been faculty members with skeleton teams. But acquiring responsibility for paying staff tripled institutional budgets, resulting in the multiplication and professionalisation of administrative staff, says Sursock. “Practically all the universities have now in the president’s office a chief of staff. That’s a major, major change,” she says, adding that a general lack of support staff partly explains why progress towards institutional autonomy has been so slow in France.

Sculptures waiting for installation on dome of Val-de-Grace church

At the same time, other reforms have bolstered the role of the president. The greater use of competitive, excellence-focused funding since the mid-2000s has brought France closer to systems like the UK’s and Germany’s, where the state has a smaller rulebook but pulls strings with financial incentives. And in 2010, the IdEx excellence initiative began to hand out billions of euros to encourage France’s best universities into strategic, research-focused mergers with international ambitions. The final list of universities approved for ongoing funding boosts was announced in March

Sursock helped to develop the IdEx programme. In her view, its two-level approach, which also allows for recognition of universities with strengths in specific areas, encourages a “much more distributed definition of excellence” than similar initiatives elsewhere do. She adds that, like competitive funding, it boosts autonomy by encouraging universities to think strategically. As a result, she is “seeing many more concerns about succession planning, because now that the presidents embody a strategic project, they want to see it continue. They are grooming their successors.”

Some academics are worried that France is moving towards an “aggressive liberal” system, prioritising competition over fair geographical and disciplinary provision. “With these instruments, the government stated that French universities are not equal, that some of them will succeed in the competition and others will not,” says Musselin.

The “University of Toulouse” – a grouping consisting of Jean Jaurès and two other local universities – has had its application for IdEx designation rejected twice because of a perceived lack of local buy-in. For Jean Jaurès’ Garnier, autonomy “raises questions of adaptation: knowing how to grasp the issues in a much broader way than before, knowing how to devise and implement strategies on a new scale”.

Among the institutions granted a share of the ongoing €300 million annual IdEx funding is PSL Paris. An amalgam of 11 grandes écoles and public institutions in an arrangement known as a grand établissement, PSL formally became a university in 2019 and is, by some distance, France’s highest-ranked institution in Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, at joint 40th.

But autonomy within grands établissements is an issue for the often historically prestigious institutions that make them up. Alain Fuchs was first elected president of PSL in 2017, when it was a more loosely bound conglomeration known as a ComUE, a legal form created in 2013. He says the biggest challenge in merging into a university was deciding what powers the institutions would pool. “The most difficult part was to devise this line of separation, or this balance between integration and subsidiarity,” he says.

As vice-president of research at prestigious social sciences grande école Sciences Po, Musselin took part in regular meetings with her seven counterparts within the ComUE known as the Sorbonne Paris Cité Alliance. She says the grouping did nothing to enhance autonomy or efficiency. “Sitting there, I was thinking, who is my manager? Who am I responsible to? To the ComUE or to my own president?” she says.

In Fuchs’ view, however, PSL’s merger into a single university has “in a sense” enhanced member institutions’ individual autonomy. “The whole point is the relationship with the Ministry of Higher Education,” he says, explaining that, as an interface, he can insulate the heads of PSL’s constituent schools from ministry meddling. The officials “do the micromanagement with me”, he says.

PSL tops THE’s Young University Rankings 2022 and Fuchs says that such international recognition has also helped to grant the institution a kind of intangible autonomy from the state. “PSL now is really part of the landscape and understood. That provided us, and me, room to talk to the administration and to the ministries,” he says. “Because of the increasing visibility of PSL, my feeling is that I have a little bit more autonomy now than I had five years ago.”

But, like most university presidents, Fuchs wants even more. PSL is among those institutions that have set up a foundation they can use to top up salaries. This allows it to put together more enticing offers than universities are usually able to, so as to lure foreign talent. But Fuchs would like more latitude in hiring and considers the current situation an uneasy halfway house. “Human resource management is the main point,” he says. “It’s very French, the half-pregnant concept: starting a reform and ending up in the middle of the road. Either you obtain autonomy or not.”

Mural based on Delacroix’s painting “Liberty Leading the People”

Perhaps Macron himself agrees with this sentiment. In January, he said France “must complete the logic” of autonomy reforms, allowing more differentiation between institutions. International trends may also push France in the same direction; within Europe, Ireland, Slovakia and Spain are all developing autonomy-related reforms, according to Enora Pruvot, deputy director for governance, funding and public policy development at the EUA, who is currently collecting data for the latest edition of the association’s autonomy scorecard.

The latest French data, covering the winter of 2021-22, were still being collated at the time of writing, but in previous editions of the scorecard, the country has languished near the bottom of the four criteria against which systems are ranked. It was in the bottom three for academic and staffing autonomy, the bottom five for financial autonomy, and the bottom third for organisational autonomy.

That uniformly low position distinguishes France from other European systems. Sweden, for instance, has moderate levels of autonomy in most areas, but is one of the freest systems when it comes to staffing. “The regulatory framework in France remains quite restrictive in all aspects,” says Pruvot. While the rules have been loosened in “some very targeted areas”, what is missing is a “coherent approach” to autonomy, with funding and skills being in particular need of reduced ministerial oversight.

Among those targeted tweaks was 2018’s announcement of a huge rise in the fee cap for international students – from about €170 (£140) a year to €2,770 at bachelor’s level and €3,770 at master’s level. However, while the fees were billed as part of an effort to increase the prestige of French institutions and double international enrolments within a decade, “it’s difficult for some of the French universities to be competitive internationally if they start charging higher fees, because what’s missing is an upstream investment in improving the international student experience,” Pruvot warns.

The pursuit of prestige is also at the root of a recent legal fight over the right to use the name “Université de Paris”, the historic bearer of which was broken up into multiple institutions following the 1968 protests. At the end of last year, the Council of State, France’s supreme court, ruled that the latest claimant on the name, formed by the 2019 merger of two of the splinter institutions, the universities of Paris-Descartes and Paris-Diderot, must call itself something else, following a challenge by a third splinter institution, the University of Paris-Panthéon-Assas. The Udice group of 10 major French research universities, many of which are involved in the IdEx initiative and which includes the 2019 Université de Paris, said the spat had taken France “back 15 years” and would have a “deleterious international effect on all the French actors”.

“You have this kind of millefeuille of identities and entities competing in terms of branding. It’s difficult,” says Pruvot.

Whatever the latest data show, Pruvot acknowledges that the EUA’s methodology “is probably going to be a bit unfair to France as the scorecard methodology will not capture these contextual developments”. Instead, it focuses on “the contractual relationship between the state and the institution”. But in interviews with the Montaigne Institute thinktank following the first Covid-19 lockdown, French university leaders all claimed to have gained autonomy as a result of their often ad hoc responses to the pandemic. Musselin agrees that while university presidents were brought closer to the ministry during the rewriting of rules to allow for digital teaching and exams at the start of the crisis, they settled into a looser relationship as the months wore on. “Most [presidents] took more distance from the ministry than they had before,” she says.

Where some see presidential autonomy behind institutions’ ability to adapt to unprecedented conditions, others credit collective decision-making. “The kind of agility we would associate with the notion of autonomy [is also something] you can have via university democracy, the possibility of decision-making on the ground,” says Orléans’ Fischer. Yet the trend towards greater institutional autonomy seems likely to continue. Aside from international trends, France’s own demographic changes invite it, as a baby boom combines with an increasingly mixed student body.

The Court of Auditors’ study notes that French enrolments have grown by 9.6 per cent in the past five years, equivalent to 10 medium-sized universities. Amid such expansion, “you cannot have a very unified, single system with so many students and so many staff”, says Musselin. As part of this evolution, she foresees institutions acquiring more autonomy over staffing and recruitment. “That will not be a big bang, but, rather, going a step further on small things that, at the end of the day, make quite a big difference,” she says.

Neither does Sursock foresee a revolution. She notes that for all France’s commitment to equality in its university sector, an increasingly diverse student population “will need very diverse institutions, and the state is unable to [provide] that”. For her, the next logical step for reform will be university governance, moving towards leaner boards better able to make bold decisions. However, she concedes that downsizing boards that often have 30 members or more will be “challenging”; institutions will “need to be encouraged to come up with alternative experimentations in this”.

Ultimately, for Sursock, the culture of universities cannot be separated from that of their wider societies. “The way they are run is very often a reflection of the way the country is run,” she says. “It’s difficult to change that. It’s difficult to change your political culture.”

So while the outcome of April’s presidential election is unlikely to divert France from its creep towards liberalisation of higher education, don’t expect the political tethers to be guillotined any time soon.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles