The French disconnection

Bruno Cousin and Michèle Lamont say academics at France's public universities need to rethink their strategy after this year's protests alienated the public and had little impact on the Government

December 3, 2009

Between February and June 2009, French universities were the theatre of an exceptional protest movement against the latest flavour of governmental reform concerning academic careers. Protest sometimes seems to be a way of life in the French academy, and in France at large, but this time the situation is serious, with potentially huge consequences for the future of the sector. Indeed, the nation that gave birth to je pense, donc je suis is in a deep crisis on the intellectual front, and nowhere is this as obvious as in academic evaluation.

The protest movement did not take off in the grandes écoles (which train much of the French elite), or in professional and technical schools. Instead, it took off in the 80 comprehensive universités - the public institutions that are the backbone of the French educational system. Until two years ago, they were required to admit any high-school graduate on a first-come, first-served basis. A selection process was recently introduced, but even today most students are there because they could not gain entry elsewhere. Faculty work conditions are generally poor, as their institutions are chronically underfunded. Classes are large and programmes are understaffed. More than half of all students leave without any kind of diploma.

Public universities can be very different from each other and are research-intensive in varying degrees, but they carry out the bulk of French scientific research. Research is largely conducted in centres that are located within these institutions, and which often bring together overworked university teachers and full-time researchers who are attached to national institutes such as the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). In a context where the output of these joint centres is not, or is only partially, covered by international ratings, French academics feel doubly underrated owing to the combination of low salaries and low ratings.

This feeling was exacerbated on 22 January when President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that the poor performance of French universities in international rankings was, above all, the consequence of the absence of continuous evaluation, which encourages sloth. Of course, he was displeased that the extensive set of higher education reforms undertaken by his Government during the preceding two years were met with opposition by large segments of the academic community.

Everyone agrees that the current system poses a great many problems, but there is no agreement on how to improve it and get beyond the current gridlock. It is la société bloquée all over again. To wit:

- While most academics believe that the system is far too centralised, a 2007 law establishing the progressive financial "autonomy" (and accountability) of universities has been met with criticism and resistance, because it is perceived to be part of a strategy of withdrawal on the part of the State that will result in fewer resources being available for higher education. A number of scholars also fear that the increased decision-making power conferred on university presidents is a threat to the autonomy of faculty members.

- While there is a need to design new, more universalistic procedures for evaluating performance and distributing resources, many academics are sceptical of the new institutions recently created to do this, namely the national agencies for the evaluation of universities and research units (Agence d'Evaluation de la Recherche et de l'Enseignement Superieur, or AERES) and research projects (Agence Nationale de la Recherche, or ANR). The former, in particular, has been criticised for its reliance on bibliometrics (publication and citation counts), even if the agency is now moving towards using less quantitative standards. Moreover, whereas the former mechanisms for distributing research funds depended on the decisions of elected peers (for instance, on the national committee of the CNRS), AERES appoints its panel members, and this is seen as a blow to researchers' autonomy. For this and other reasons, many academics have refused to serve on its evaluation panels.

- While academics often agree that the old CNRS needed further integration with the universities, many denounce its gradual downsizing and transformation from a comprehensive research institution to a simple funding and programming agency as the work of uninformed politicians and technocrats intent on dismantling what works best in French research. In 2004, a widespread national protest arose against this dismantling, with 74,000 scholars signing a petition against it. Critics also say that the ongoing reorganisation of the CNRS into disciplinary institutes will reinforce the separation between the sciences, reorient research towards more applied fields and work against the interdisciplinary collaborations that are crucial to innovation in many fields.

- While many agree on the need to improve teaching, moves to increase the number of teaching hours are among the most strongly contested reforms. French academics, who very rarely have sabbaticals, already perceive themselves as overworked in a system where time for research is increasingly scarce. These factors help to explain the resistance to expanded classroom hours and new administrative duties.

In the longest strike ever organised by the French scientific community, tens of thousands of lecturers and researchers began in early February to hold protests over a period of several weeks, demonstrating in the streets and (with the support of some students) blocking access to some university campuses. Many also participated in a national debate via print, online and broadcast media, and in general meetings. Some faculty members held teach-ins and action-oriented "alternative courses" for students. Several universities saw their final exams and summer holidays delayed and many foreign exchange students were called back by their home institutions. Despite this frontal assault, the Government did not back down: the much disparaged decree reorganising academic careers (with regard to recruitment, teaching loads, evaluations and promotions) and giving more prerogatives and autonomy to university presidents came into effect on 23 April.

This outcome will probably lead academics and their unions to rethink their strategies and repertoires of collective action. The traditional protest forms are losing legitimacy. As the dust settles, it is becoming clear that demonstrating has little traction in a context where the French public increasingly perceives academics as an elite bent on defending its privileges, even if it requires depriving students of their courses. Negotiation is also perceived as ineffectual, as many suspect that governmental consultations were conducted to buy time until the end of the academic year, when mobilisation would peter out. A third strategy - the radical option that would have prevented the scheduling of exams and the handing out of diplomas at the end of this spring - was ruled out even on the campuses most committed to the cause for fear of alienating the public even further.

As yet, however, no clear alternative has surfaced. We are now witnessing a cleavage between those who voice their opposition (in the main, scholars in the humanities) and the increasing number of academics (primarily scientists) who espouse a "wait-and-see" or a collaborative position as the only realistic path to improving the situation in their own universities. If the majority of academics appear to share the same diagnosis about what needs to be changed in the French system, they disagree on the solution (and on its scale - national or local). The root of the crisis lies not only in the Government's difficulties in generating consensus, but also in the academics' own scepticism, cynicism or fatalism about meritocracy, the absence of the administrative resources needed to support proper evaluation, the possibility of impartial evaluation, and the system's ability to recognise and reward merit.

Deep problems remain in the institutions charged with evaluating the work of academics. The interference of political power, and the (admittedly diminishing) influence of trade unions and corporatist associations have long been viewed as obstacles to a collegial system of academic evaluation. The legitimacy of the 70 disciplinary sections of the Conseil National des Universites (CNU) - charged with certifying individuals as eligible for faculty positions, and with directly granting some promotions - is under question. Some of its committee members are appointed by the Government and as such are suspected of being second-rate, of benefiting from governmental patronage, or of defending governmental interests. Others are chosen from electoral lists that include a disproportionate number of partisan members, who are often perceived to be there because of their political involvement rather than because of their scientific status.

The legitimacy of these committees is further called into question because they include only academics employed by French institutions and are often viewed as perpetuating a longstanding tradition of favouritism. To give only one particularly scandalous example: in June, panellists in the sociology section allocated to themselves half of the promotions that they were charged with assigning across the entire discipline of sociology. This led to the resignation of the rest of the commission and to multiple protests. Such an occurrence sent deep waves of distrust not only between academics, but also towards the civil servants charged with reforming a system that is increasingly viewed as flawed.

Peer review is also in crisis at the local level. While selecting young doctoral recipients to be maîtres de conférences (the entry level permanent position in the French academy, similar to the British lecturer), French universities on average fill 30 per cent of available posts with their own graduates, to the point where local clientelism is often decried as symbolising the corruption of the entire system. The typical (and only) job interview for such a post lasts 20 to 30 minutes - probably the European record for brevity and surely too short to determine whether an individual deserves what is essentially a lifelong appointment. Many view the selection process as little more than a means to legitimise the appointment of pre-selected candidates - although the extent to which this is genuinely the case varies across institutions.

What is to be done? Because both the CNU and the local selection committees have recently been reorganised or granted new responsibilities, it seems the right moment to think about how to improve the evaluation processes in very practical ways. As part of a new start, academics should aim to generate a system of true self-governance at each level, grounded in more explicit principles for peer review. This would put them in a position to defend academic autonomy against the much-feared and maligned governmental or managerial control. While this is certainly occurring in some disciplines and institutions, progress is far from being equally spread across the sector.

Obvious and costless regulatory measures could easily be implemented - for instance, discouraging universities from hiring their own PhD graduates (as AERES recently started to), or forbidding selection committees from promoting their own members. One could also look abroad for examples of "best practice". The UK's Economic and Social Research Council has created colleges of trained academic evaluators who are charged with maintaining academic and ethical standards in peer review; although not all aspects of the British approach to academic reform should be emulated, this one is particularly worthy.

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) uses teams of elected experts to evaluate proposals, and academic reputation weighs heavily in determining which names will be put on electoral lists and who will serve on evaluation panels. Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council recently asked an independent panel of international experts to evaluate its peer review process in order to improve impartiality and effectiveness.

In a recent book on peer review in the US, one of the present authors (Michele Lamont) showed the ways in which American social scientists and humanists operate to maintain their faith in the idea that peer review works and that the academic system of evaluation is fair. In this case, academics exercise their right as the only legitimate evaluators of knowledge by providing detailed assessment of intellectual production in light of their extensive expertise in specialised topics. The exercise of peer evaluation sustains and expresses professional status and professional autonomy. But it requires significant time (and thus good working conditions) and moral commitment - time spent comparing dossiers, making principled decisions about when it is necessary to withdraw on the grounds of personal interest, and so forth. Of course no peer review works perfectly, but US academics, while being aware of its limitations, appear to view the system as relatively healthy and they engage in many actions that contribute to sustaining this faith.

In our view, fixing the current flaws in the French system does not merely demand organisational reforms, including giving academics more time to evaluate the research of colleagues and candidates properly. It may also require French academics to think long and hard about their own cynicism and fatalism concerning their ability to make judgments about quality that would not be driven by cronyism or particularism, and that would honour their own expertise and connoisseurship.

Not that proper governmental reform is not needed, but sometimes blaming the Government may be an easy way out. Above all, it is increasingly a very ineffectual way of tackling a substantial part of the problem. A little more collaborative thinking and a little less cynicism among both academics and administrators - if at all possible - may very well help French universities find a way out of the crisis. And it will help the French academic and research community to become, once again, much more than the sum of its parts.

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