Hollande, France and an old, familiar refrain

In trying to please everyone, can François Hollande’s reforms really hope to solve French higher education’s thorniest problems? Jack Grove reports

May 9, 2013

François Hollande’s embattled administration faces a major test this month as it attempts to push sweeping changes to higher education through the French parliament.

With the Socialist government rocked by financial scandal and its leader’s approval ratings at a record low of 29 per cent, opposition from university leaders to key parts of the draft bill on higher education, which was published on 20 March, will not have been welcomed.

Created by Geneviève Fioraso, the higher education and research minister, the bill proposes 20 separate reform measures, which are due to be debated in the National Assembly on May.

Much of the bill has been happily accepted by the French academy. Plans to increase access to university, to cut dropout rates (about 36 per cent of students fail to complete their studies, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) and to improve graduate employability are relatively uncontroversial.

There is also support for plans to simplify France’s complex, esoteric higher education and research structures.

Instead of myriad public universities, grandes écoles, specialist colleges and stand-alone national research agencies, each dealing directly with the Education Ministry in Paris, institutions will be organised into about 30 regional groups.

Members of the “community of universities and institutions” will be encouraged to work with others in their circle on research, on teaching and on creating links with industry. The effort to foster more collaboration builds on the university consortium plans (pôles de recherche d’enseignement supérieur, or PRES) introduced by Jacques Chirac’s government in 2006.

“Fioraso is trying to reunite the universities that were broken up after the unrest of 1968,” explains Anne Corbett, visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute.

“She wants contact with just 30 groups, rather than 150 organisations, so is trying to get more universities involved in these [consortia], which is good politics,” she adds.

Fioraso’s reforms seek to promote collegiality between institutions rather than the competition encouraged by Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, Corbett adds.

The law will be crucial to giving such institutional communities firm recognition and helping them to gain a foothold in world research rankings, believes Monique Canto-Sperber, president of Paris Sciences et Lettres, a group of 21 elite higher education institutions.

“We are perhaps a bit like Oxford colleges - each doing different things with a common enterprise - so we have been asked to be ranked together,” says Canto-Sperber, a former head of the École Normale Supérieure.

More contentious parts of Fioraso’s programme are plans to introduce more bachelor’s degrees for technical subjects, addressing the issue of teaching certificates for academics and attaching the year-long preparatory classes for the highly selective grandes écoles to universities.

Executive power play

However, university leaders have been most concerned about plans to reform academic governance by increasing the size of universities’ administrative councils, which could number up to 80 people.

Widely perceived as a move to please trade unions by increasing staff representation within universities, the plans have been publicly denounced by vice-chancellors who fear a loss of executive power.

A letter by several unnamed vice-chancellors published in L’Express in March warned that the change would create a “two-headed university”, in which power is located in the administrative board and university presidents are “relegated to the role of spokesman to communicate with the ministry”.

This reform would turn universities into “ships adrift at sea” and exacerbate bureaucratic delays and departmental conflicts, they claimed.

Others argue, however, that the need to connect staff with their institutions via this new structure may be a wise move, given the criticisms that Sarkozy’s reorganisation of higher education led to a system dominated by managers, not staff.

Edouard Husson, a former vice-chancellor of the universities of Paris who led the city’s reorganisation of higher education under Sarkozy, believes that the new governance rule “is not a bad one”.

“Some people felt that the reforms were too top-down,” says Husson, who is now the dean of ESCP Europe Business School, which has campuses in Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid and Torino.

“What was lacking was a kind of appropriation [by staff] of the reforms. We need to find support within universities for the changes.”

However, Husson argues that the reforms fail to tackle the three most pressing problems in French higher education: the lack of student tuition fees, of admissions selectivity and of proper support for graduates seeking a first job.

Study at public university is, in essence, free, with tuition fees set at a nominal rate of about €200 (£170) a year, and anyone who gains a Baccalauréat - a low pass is roughly equivalent to three C grades at A level - can enter most courses.

Geneviève Fioraso

“The reforms will not change much until the lack of selectivity at the entrance to the first year is addressed,” Husson argues.

Tuition charges set somewhere between “Britain’s crazily high fees” and the “very low fees in France” should be considered as well, he continues. “Without the possibility of funding themselves, French universities will always be dependent on the ministry.”

Efforts to help students into jobs - the “milk round” of graduate employers on campus is a relatively new phenomenon - should be redoubled, Husson says. “Students should be helped and supported within universities, so they can find their own way in life.”

Some university leaders have criticised the bill as a missed opportunity. Several vice-chancellors, among them Jean-Loup Salzmann, president of the University of Paris-13 and head of the French Rectors’ Conference, put their names to a letter published in Le Monde on 20 April that called for more long-term investment in universities.

Scientists and academic trade unions have also protested that the bill does little to address the plight of researchers on short-term contracts and that its efforts to create more research posts are too modest.

Long-term vision unclear

Indeed, while parts of the reforms have been lauded - such as the overhaul of France’s quality assurance system, which some academics consider to be heavy-handed and outdated - critics say the bill lacks ambition and long- term vision.

Sebastian Stride, senior research expert at Siris Academic, whose consultancy helped Paris Sciences et Lettres to secure the first EUR1 billion endowments awarded under Sarkozy’s reforms, says the four-month consultation on outline plans, which received more than 12,000 responses, sought to please too many people, resulting in a lacklustre consensus and very little change.

“The law changes nothing in my view and has simply consumed an incredible amount of time,” Stride says. “There is no fundamental change here, with the biggest change being the renaming of PRES to become ‘communities of universities’.”

Like Husson, Stride argues that France should build on the reforms made by Valérie Pécresse under the Sarkozy government in 2007, which increased university autonomy and loosened the grip of centralised control from Paris. “What we now have is a law with lots of articles and clauses, which seem to lay down the rules but is also vague enough to be open to interpretation,” he says.

“There is a need to define what everyone should be doing within a framework, even though the government knows that it is impossible to control everything from the centre. Instead you should trust academics and presidents to experiment and get on with running universities.”

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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