French reform plans on hold

July 6, 2007

France's new President has already had to compromise on his plans for university autonomy. Jane Marshall explains the objections that he faced

During France's recent presidential election campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy highlighted university reform as a priority. MPs are due to vote on proposed changes later this month. But it will be on legislation over which President Sarkozy has had to make concessions as he bids to give universities autonomy by giving them control of their spending, staff recruitment and buildings.

The President was obliged to put on hold his fast-track legislative schedule during discussions with higher education representatives on the university autonomy Bill put forward by Valerie Pecresse, the Minister for Higher Education and Research.

Opposition to the Bill focused on three issues. First, there were fears that the choice proposed for universities over whether or not to adopt autonomy would create a two-tier system, leading to inequalities between institutions and students.

The second problem was a plan to reduce the governing board the conseil d'administration from between 30 and 60 members to 20, in the process reducing staff and student representation. Outside bodies on the board, such as regional authorities and companies, were to have been given more clout, reflecting Mr Sarkozy's wish for closer links between universities and the economy and business.

Third, students were vociferous in rejecting a clause that would have introduced selection at the entry to masters level courses after four years of higher studies.

Unions, which remain suspicious despite the concessions, protested the Bill was being steamrollered through without adequate consultation. Many opponents of the reform still believe it breaches the democratic public service ethos embodied in French university statutes.

When the reform was voted down by the consultative Conseil National de L'enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche, Mr Sarkozy postponed government examination of the bill for a week and opened further negotiations, which he conducted personally.

He made rapid concessions:

  • All universities must now prepare for autonomy within five years
  • The governing board will consist of 30 members, with increased student representation
  • The selection clause was withdrawn.

Few dispute that France's universities are ripe for reform. University entry is non-selective, open to all holders of the school-leaving Baccalauréat exam, and fees are minimal, so faculties are overcrowded. The universities are also chronically underfunded: the average annual state spend on each university student is E6,700 (£4,500), compared with E10,170 for a lycée pupil and E13,000 for a student attending preparatory classes for an elite grande école . Each year, 90,000 students leave French universities without a qualification, often because they choose courses that are unsuitable for them.

The only French university as opposed to grande ecole that featured in the world's top 100 in the latest Times Higher rankings was Paris VI, Pierre et Marie-Curie University, in 93rd place. French universities are often under represented in such tables because of the country's separate research organisations, such as the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, or national centre for scientific research).

Recent developments on the French higher education scene include the introduction of the Bologna Process and the European credit transfer system; fixing degrees at bachelor, masters and doctorate levels at three, five and eight years respectively; and moving from theoretical, specialised studies to increasingly popular degrees geared to employment, such as the bachelor's equivalent licence professionnelle .

Mr Sarkozy spelt out his aims for universities during the run-up to the presidential election, in line with his desire for France to reduce state intervention and adopt a regime encouraging initiative and enterprise, rewarding individual merit and hard work.

He said: "For 40 years we have failed to carry out a higher education reform. At this time of the worldwide battle for intelligence, we are paying a high price while our young people are sent in their thousands to do studies without career prospects." He said he would keep the system where those who passed the Baccalauréat would have a place at university but pledged that "the number of students taking the different courses will depend on the realities of the job market".

He proposed a public service to guide school-leavers to the studies that suited them best.

His reforms would transfer budgetary power to universities, as well as control over creation and abolition of posts, staff recruitment and pay, ownership of property and buildings all areas that are now under strict state control. University presidents would be elected for four years, renewable once, instead of the current five-year non-renewable mandate.

During his campaign, Mr Sarkozy promised to increase public spending on universities by 40 per cent by 2012 an extra €15 billion and public research funding by a quarter, an extra €4 billion over the next five years. He hopes to encourage private sponsorship of universities and has not excluded raising student fees, currently among the lowest in Europe. This would provoke a student revolt and protests from those who regard university education as a public service. It is not included in the current Bill.

He also wants to reform student grants to "take account of hard work and merit" and to encourage students to seek paid work, for example in university libraries, which he said should be open in the evenings and at weekends. He said the status of technical and vocational education should be upgraded.

He intends an increased research role for universities. The state would continue to plan overall strategy while allocating funds to "projects" rather than automatically financing research organisations such as the CNRS, which would become resource agencies responsible for selecting and funding programmes. Universities would be main research operators and would use increased autonomy to define their policies and exercise full control of the units operated jointly with outside research bodies.

The Prime Minister, Francois Fillon who was Higher Education and Research Minister in the mid-1990s and Minister of Education, Higher Education and Research in 2004/05 has echoed Mr Sarkozy's commitments. He has described university autonomy as "the most important reform of my legislative programme".

Universities would be able to "organise themselves as they wish, hire the teachers they want, create the courses they want, set up agreements with research organisations, grandes écoles and businesses, without having to ask for authorisation from their supervising ministries", Mr Fillon said.

At present the Education Ministry manages the complex academics' appointments system and determines and authorises which posts in which disciplines will be made available each year. A national council of academics judges which applicants qualify for a tenured post, and each university has an elected committee that decides appointments. The minister must approve demands from universities for new posts. The universities sign four-yearly contracts with the state detailing the courses they offer and other activities.

University presidents have long sought greater control over their affairs, and attempts to answer their demands have been made, most recently in 2004 by Luc Ferry, then Education Minister. But the legislation fell when public sector strikes overwhelmed the country. Mr Sarkozy is determined to succeed where others have failed.

When Ms Pecresse opened talks in June with university presidents and teaching, research and student unions, they soon ran into difficulties. University presidents favour the principle of autonomy, which will give them more executive powers, but the reform needs the support of the teachers, researchers and students to succeed. Memories are still fresh of events last year when student protests closed universities nationwide and forced the government of Dominique de Villepin to abandon an unpopular youth employment scheme.

Daniel Mouchard, professor of political science at Sorbonne-Nouvelle University, Paris III, said the reforms would not introduce true autonomy. "It all depends on what you mean by the word. In the French system, the issue of autonomy is linked to that of university democracy, the principle by which universities are run by their own teaching and administrative staff.

"If autonomy consists of giving universities increased resources to carry out their scientific and educational policy, and to widen university democracy and make it more efficient, then more autonomy is to be welcomed. But that is not the point of this reform, which gives the principle of autonomy a quite different meaning."

The reforms would concentrate too much power on university presidents, Professor Mouchard said. "These reforms carry the risk of arbitrary and ultra centralised governance of the universities, and therefore a retreat from university democracy."


  • The student upheavals of May 1968 led to major restructuring and democratisation of French universities.
  • University presidents are voted in by three elected councils (the decision making and executive conseil d'administration ; the scientific council; and the council on studies and university life).
  • The current annual budget for all higher education and research is €21.3 billion (£14.4 billion).
  • There are 1.4 million students enrolled in France's 85 universities, and 2.3 million higher education students in total. There are about 80,000 university teachers

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments