Controversial new research law disappoints French universities

The government points to a decade of funding guarantees, but critics have taken aim at draconian punishments for campus protests and the rushed scrapping of a PhD vetting body

November 30, 2020
French police
Source: iStock

The French government has come under fire from universities, and even a prominent mathematician-turned-politician in the government, after pushing through a controversial set of measures in a new law designed to secure the future of French research over the next decade.

Coming in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks in October − and draconian new laws in response that could stop journalists and the public filming police violence – France’s research law criminalises unauthorised entry onto campuses, threatening protesters with a jail term of up to three years or a fine of up to €45,000 (£40,170).

The government wants to stop protesters disrupting speakers invited to speak on campus, explained Martin Andler, president of the Initiative for Science in Europe and an expert on French higher education.

In one incident last year, a prominent philosopher was disinvited from speaking at Bordeaux Montaigne University after objections from student groups who accused her of homophobia.

But France’s Conference of University Presidents has called the new provision “dangerous” and said it carried “inappropriate risks of penalisation”. It pointed out that universities already have legal powers to ensure order on campus.

“This is introducing something that is unnecessary, unwarranted,” said Professor Andler, adding that it was part of a broader clampdown on civil liberties being pushed through by Emmanuel Macron’s government.

Another controversial aspect of the law is the scrapping of a central body that vets PhD holders to make sure they are up to the standard needed to apply for professorial roles.

This vetting process irks those who would like universities to have more autonomy over who they hire.

But the National Council of Universities is also seen as a guarantee of quality. In Professor Andler’s field, mathematics, about a third of PhD holders are prevented from applying for professorial posts. “In some fields there is little quality control over the quality of PhDs,” he said.

The fear is that more autonomy over recruitment will lead to “clientelism” in universities, said Jean-Michel Catin, a blogger on French higher education.

Universities were also shocked that the council was scrapped using a sudden amendment with little consultation.

Cédric Villani, a prominent French mathematician and parliamentarian for Mr Macron’s ruling party, ended up voting against the law, decrying the “botched compromise text”.

The law does guarantee budget increases for French research over the next decade. By 2030, the country should spend €20 billion a year, an increase of €5 billion from now, although critics say that, after inflation, this will amount to only a limited boost.

The bulk of the new money will go to project-based research, explained Professor Andler, rather than providing automatic, basic funding for academics – hence fears from some in the academy that it will inhibit curiosity-driven scholarship without the prospect of immediate results.

The law also introduces new US-style tenure-track junior professorship positions for young researchers, although there will be a cap on how many universities can recruit. French universities hope that these positions should make academia a more attractive profession.

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