Howard Davies and Maria Zhivitskaya call for an entente cordiale over the spread of English in French universities

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

June 13, 2013

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.

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

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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