Last November, in response to student unrest, the French Minister of Education, Valérie Pécresse, made a couple of speeches explaining the principles behind her Law on the Freedoms and Responsibilities of Universities.
Pécresse spoke of a much-needed but nonetheless "unprecedented financial commitment". This would amount to a budgetary increase of 50 per cent over five years, which would "bring fundamental change to the face of campuses and at last offer students living and studying conditions similar to those enjoyed by their foreign counterparts".
Universities would be able to set up foundations "to attract funds from philanthropists, alumni and businesses". Why, asked Pécresse, "should they be deprived of resources to which every university in the world has access?" All in all, her reforms amounted to "a major programme to combat the failure of the university sector".
Yet alongside such changes the minister also stressed continuities. Since universities were "the place that kept the republican promise of equal opportunity", she was opposed to selection and indeed wanted to increase student numbers. So anyone who had passed the Baccalauréat would continue to have the right to attend his or her local university. Even a proposal that allowed universities to select students for entry to masters courses, which appeared in the draft version of Pécresse's law, was abandoned in response to opposition. Fees would remain a very modest €165 (£133) a year. And the reforms, however important, posed "no risk of privatisation".
President Nicolas Sarkozy's wide-ranging election campaign put a good deal of stress on competitiveness and modernisation in general and reform of higher education in particular. It seems widely agreed that something needs to be done about the deep structural malaise afflicting French universities. Yet, as Pécresse's caution indicates, there are also a number of major taboos and no-go areas. Plans to grant more autonomy to universities, for example, tend to stir up concerns that this will mean the end to a (mythical) world in which all universities are equal.
Quite apart from the recent growth in the number of English-language business schools offering international (or Anglo-Saxon) qualifications such as MBAs, French higher education is at least a two-tier and three-pole system. As is well known, the most talented teenagers tend not to go to university after the Bac, but instead continue in classes préparatoires (mainly based in lycées, although some are private), so they can take the ferociously competitive exams for the elite grandes écoles.
These include engineering schools; management schools, often set up by the local chambers of commerce; écoles normales superiéures, mainly designed to train teachers and academics, where students are paid to attend in return for serving the state after graduation; and administrative schools such as the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, a famous training ground for presidents and top civil servants. All these cream off the most promising students.
A further complication, notes George Salters (not his real name), an English teaching-only professeur-agrégé (associate professor) who has worked at the Université de Nice for more than a decade, comes from the way that research is organised.
"Much as teaching at a higher level is divided between the universities and the grandes écoles," he explains, "research in France is divided between the universities and the Centres Nationals de Recherche Scientifique, which have labs all over the country, usually close to universities, and whose employees are strictly researchers (there are no students in the CNRSs). And much as the students in the grandes écoles think themselves a cut above those attending universities, the researchers of the CNRSs can sometimes be a little sniffy with regard to those in the universities."
All these factors help counter one unfair criticism often levelled at French universities: their poor showing in league tables such as those produced by Times Higher Education and Shanghai's Jiao Tong University. In the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings 2007, for example, only two French universities (the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris and the Universite Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg) and three grandes écoles appeared in the top 200. With most of the best students filtered off by the grandes ecoles and much research taking place elsewhere in the sector, this is only to be expected.
Nonetheless, there are a number of deep-seated problems.
"One of the reasons universities function so badly," argues Henry Litchens (not his real name), an Englishman who worked as an academic in France for almost 20 years before taking up a post in Switzerland, "is because of the huge civil service in Paris who try to run things without knowing what is going on on the ground. Centralisation is one of the major problems of the French system. Universities are notoriously short of money, with decaying buildings, lack of qualified teachers and administrative staff who are fonctionnaires with jobs for life."
At his former university, Litchens notes, he had "shared an office with 13 other people, so you couldn't be on site except to teach. So people were unavailable, and there was no collaboration on research."
There were also two more systemic issues. Maitres de conference (roughly, senior lecturers) and professors had tenure. While Litchens estimates that 30 to 40 per cent of his colleagues were dedicated and hard-working, and another 30 to 40 per cent perfectly adequate, that still left 20 to 40 per cent who were playing the system, never published anything and taught the same courses year after year, sometimes using photocopies of photocopies of photocopies as handouts. Vast student numbers also meant that degrees were awarded by a single marking system without any external controls.
Salters notes that salaries in the public sector had been in decline since the early 1980s, although teachers and academics seldom got much sympathy because of their long holidays. This meant that France faced a major challenge "to attract bright students into research, linked not only to the availability of jobs, which are becoming scarcer with public-sector cuts, but also to the derisory salaries on offer".
"In 1981," Salters says, "a newly qualified certifié started out at more than twice the legal minimum wage. Today, he or she starts at only a fraction above it. It's pretty much the same for postdocs in research, only they don't even have the job security and holidays of young teachers. As a result, there is a generation of highly qualified people who are still living with their parents in their late twenties, as they can't afford to move out. The more enterprising ones find better-paid work abroad."
Ever since President Francois Mitterrand made a celebrated speech in 1990 branding the grandes écoles arrogant and socially unjust, the issue of widening access has been on the agenda. It has gathered pace with increasing talk of corporate social responsibility since 2000. But while all have embraced the notion of the ascenseur sociale (or social elevator), this has taken different forms in different places.
Some of the grandes ecoles have introduced quotas or affirmative-action policies; despite concerns about fairness, they are at least quick and efficient in getting visible results. Sarkozy, the first president who is not a graduate of a grande ecole, was very sympathetic to this approach in his earlier ministerial career.
Some of the engineering schools, by contrast, have claimed that such techniques for promoting justice are themselves unjust. Because the entrance exams put such stress on maths and rationality, they claim, the results should not be influenced by social background, although more people from excluded groups could obviously be encouraged to apply.
At the École Supérieure de Commerce de Grenoble - the grandes école that forms part of the School of Management - Mark Thomas, the director for international affairs, explains that diversity is promoted by the use of two parallel systems. Roughly two thirds of students enter through the traditional post-Bac classes préparatoires, the rest by means of a passerelle (literally a footbridge) at a later date, normally after two or three years at university. It is impossible to distinguish between the two groups by the end of the course. There are also arrangements whereby local businesses sponsor poorer students.
The Grenoble École de Management consists of the l'École Supérieure de Commerce, the Graduate School of Business (GGSB), a school devoted to information systems management and a newly established doctoral school. The GGSB is just one of 53 business schools, 51 universities, 54 engineering schools and ten art schools in a booming market delivering programmes in English, with the total number increasing from 284 in 2004 to 553 in 2008.
These obviously offer new opportunities for British academics keen to work in France. The GGSB, for example, is run by a Liverpudlian, has many UK partners and is staffed predominantly by Brits. And because foreign students in China and elsewhere don't care about French qualifications but are keen to acquire MBAs, the school is able to attract an international client base. French business schools are now some of the highest-rated in Europe, and Grenoble has achieved the rare "three crowns" accreditation from the European Quality Improvement System, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and the Association of MBAs.
But what of the central pillars of French higher education that Sarkozy and Pecresse are tentatively looking to reform? The whole system, in Salters's view, "should be completely overhauled so that the three different structures (universities, grandes écoles and CNRSs) can be brought into one university-based system with decent funding", including money from "the private sector for applied research leading to patents, or even just the prestige a firm might derive from financing, say, a new library or student residence".
Salters supports "some kind of selective entry", which is already the case for grandes écoles, faculties of medicine and also the instituts universitaires de technologie. Yet, combined with "the continuation of the near-absence of tuition fees, which we are all very attached to", he admits that such wide-ranging changes amount to "a bit of a tall order".
Grenoble's Mark Thomas takes a similar line. He used to work at Université Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand, and he well remembers the lack of funding, the overcrowded lecture theatres - students would ask to leave one lecture early so they could be sure to get a seat in the next - and the envious glances cast at the working conditions and class sizes enjoyed by his fellow academics in the grandes école across the road. But when he once suggested to someone at the Ministry of Education that what universities needed were selection and tuition fees, he was told this would amount to a revolution.
In the longer term, there are obviously questions about how sustainable the dual-track system that forms "the French exception" really is. "French public universities are in a bad state in terms of governance and performance," says Thierry Grange, dean of the Grenoble École de Management, "so thegrandes écoles say that they need to get their houses in order first."
Nonetheless, he suspects that tighter co-operation is more likely over time. His grandes école has had strategic links with the Université de Grenoble since it was set up in 1984 and it now shares research facilities and has collaborated with the university in China.
Similar "marriages" are likely to take place elsewhere, although there might be no standard model. "This will be determined by the two parties and may take different forms in different places," says Grange. "The legal aspects will be less important than developing a common future. And it will probably go more smoothly in smaller cities - it's much easier to share poverty than wealth. Eventually the chamber of commerce might hand over the grandes école to the university, or there might be a sharing of brands (making the grandes école an associate of the university)."
Asked about timescales, Grange's off-the-cuff guess is that separate grandes école would no longer be around a thousand years from now. Pressed to be slightly more specific, he offers a far more striking prediction - that French universities would be reformed within five years and a broader new system in place within ten.