Après lui, le déluge: secrets of Descoings' court stun France

Audit into governance and pay at Sciences Po has implications beyond the institution, says Jack Grove

October 4, 2012

Rumours swirled when France's best-known university leader was found dead in a New York hotel room in April.

Had Richard Descoings, director of the Paris Institute of Political Studies (known as Sciences Po), been alone when he died, commentators asked? Did the gay hook-up websites that the married 53-year-old had allegedly been trawling on his laptop provide any clues? Who were the men supposedly seen leaving his room the night before he died? And why had his laptop and phone been hurled from his hotel window?

Although detectives refused to rule out foul play for weeks, their eventual conclusions were rather more prosaic: he had died of a heart attack, a coroner ruled, and there was no evidence to suggest that anyone else had been with him.

But six months on from his death, Descoings continues to attract controversy. The storm centres not on his death, however, but rather on his reign at one of France's most prestigious universities and the question of who will succeed him.

Under Descoings, Sciences Po was transformed. It has changed from a traditional grand établissement, which selected the best students from the best lycees to prepare them for a life in public administration, into a modern, internationally orientated higher education institution.

In 2001, it began to recruit many more students from France's poorest neighbourhoods through the country's first affirmative action policy. To do so, it interviewed candidates rather than selecting them via an entrance exam. Among other innovations, Sciences Po also began to require undergraduates to spend at least one year studying abroad. And since Descoings took over in 1996, the institution has doubled in size to about 10,000 students.

But the spotlight is now focused not on Sciences Po's policies but rather on its administration - most notably on the generous remuneration awarded to Descoings and his executive committee.

Details of a report into Sciences Po by the Cour des comptes, a powerful government audit body, leaked to the French press have sparked outrage in some quarters.

It was widely known that Descoings earned upwards of £250,000 a year - more than his close friend Nicolas Sarkozy, who was French president at the time - yet some reports suggest that his remuneration was close to £350,000 a year once perks were included.

That might not shock UK vice-chancellors (the University of Birmingham's David Eastwood netted £419,000 including pension contributions in 2010-11), but it has irritated the Establishment in France, where university staff are still regarded as civil servants.

Meanwhile, other universities have privately raised concerns about such pay deals, saying that Sciences Po receives more state funding per student than similar institutions.

Game of thrones

Other leaks from the report, which is due to be published by the end of the year, suggest that some practices at the institution, such as first-class air tickets for professors, pushed the limits.

"It has done a lot of damage to [Descoings'] reputation," Anne Corbett, visiting fellow at the London School of Economics' European Institute, says of the revelations.

"There are concerns that he behaved like a monarch at Sciences Po, backed up by a tight circle of people around him.

"However, his legacy is undoubted. Sciences Po was once for the elite of France; he changed it into an inclusive and very successful international university with a network of campuses across the country."

Descoings' prominent public profile and his unrivalled political connections - he was an adviser to Francois Hollande, who became president in May this year, as well as to Sarkozy - have increased public interest in the investigation.

But it is Sciences Po that will be following it most carefully, for the audit could force an overhaul of management structures if major problems are identified.

The furore has also been the first real test for Geneviève Fioraso, the country's new higher education and research minister, who decreed that Sciences Po delay naming its new director until the audit commission delivers its report.

Intervention by the government is nothing new in French higher education, which is tightly controlled by the Ministry of Education in Paris. However, some commentators believe that the minister's interference in the selection process might signal a greater readiness to meddle in university affairs - which would be contrary to reforms enacted by Sarkozy in 2007 to increase institutional autonomy.

"She is certainly making different noises about university autonomy compared with the previous government," says a Sciences Po lecturer who asked to remain anonymous.

"She obviously doesn't like what Valérie Pécresse [the former higher education and research minister] did," the lecturer adds.

Some have speculated that Fioraso might seek to reopen the four-man shortlist for the post to other candidates, or at least push Sciences Po's governing body to appoint her preferred director.

Such a nudge would be likely to help the candidacy of Jean-Michel Blanquer, director general for schools at the Ministry of Education, who is known to have excellent political contacts, and it might spell trouble for Hervé Crès, head of academic affairs at Sciences Po and the institution's interim director, who was widely tipped to take over from Descoings.

Authority and autonomy

Accusations of meddling by Fioraso have also focused attention on her surprise appointment as higher education and research minister in May.

Some academic leaders claim she was appointed only because Hollande wanted women to form at least half of his Cabinet - a move that mirrors the sort of affirmative action pioneered by Sciences Po.

"Most people expected Michel Destot [deputy mayor of Grenoble] to take the higher education brief," says one lecturer at a French university, adding that the speculation over the reasons for Fioraso's appointment "doesn't exactly enforce her authority".

Yet the affair - and the issues raised about university autonomy - has also caused some to wonder whether the higher education reforms initiated by Sarkozy will be continued by Hollande's administration.

The changes encouraged universities to merge or work more closely together in exchange for multimillion-euro investment in a drive to create more world-class universities.

Although firm policies have not been announced, Fioraso and Hollande have yet to come out definitively in favour of the plan to create a so-called Sorbonne League of elite universities, with other institutions perhaps left to scrape by on reduced funding.

However, Sebastian Stride, senior research expert at Siris Academic, a consultancy firm that advises French universities, believes that Hollande will back the planned changes.

"The reforms are going to continue," he says. "France is moving towards internationalisation. Autonomy is here to stay and will increase.

"One of François Hollande's closest advisers is Jean-Yves Mérindol [former director of the École Normale Supérieure, a grande école], and he is a big supporter of the reforms.

"New questions may also be asked about higher education, such as whether more selection is needed at university level," Stride continues. "The issue of higher [tuition] fees may also be put on the table, although many will argue in favour of the status quo.

"You will also see more moves to make universities work together. It is already happening in Strasbourg, Bordeaux and Marseilles."

The audit commission report will be awaited not only by those at Sciences Po but also by the whole of the French academy eager to see how committed the Hollande government is to the autonomy agenda.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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