French trapped by their centralism

December 1, 1995

The remarkable regularity with which France's universities erupt suggests student protest movements bear a striking similarity. But this time, it is different.

Since 1986, student unrest has sunk one reform plan after another. The last flare-up was in March, when just the rumoured content of a report on university reform led to protest and the report's withdrawal before it was even discussed.

This time, no incautious government measure was behind the trouble. The spur was a lack of cash and teaching staff - and on that, the French government had been warned.

The protests began - started by the dean of the science faculty, not students - at Rouen University which, last April, became the first French university to lock out students as part of its campaign for funds. Its president said the lock-out was "an appeal to the ministry so that serious problems could be avoided next October".

October came and serious problems arose. One under-resourced faculty after another followed Rouen and better-off universities also joined a movement which quickly reflected an even deeper malaise than lack of resources - lack of prospects. The frustrations of November 1995 are not the frustrations of May 1968. Today's students do not want to change the world, they just want France's post-1968 society to deliver what it promised - a place for its young people.

Of course, France is not the only country pumping more money into a higher education system which finds it increasingly difficult to meet growing social demand in a harsh economic climate. But it is perhaps the first to learn the hard way that mass education is not just a matter of putting up buildings.

The current crisis may have begun after two successive governments failed to go on pumping in even the minimal extra resources required to run new or expanded universities. But the root problem is whether such quantitative change could ever work without qualitative change.

Today, hundreds of thousands of students struggle on to general academic courses whose traditional career outlets can absorb only a small proportion. When Lionel Jospin, then education minister, produced a reform proposal, students read it as restricting access and scuppered it.

Expansion took off without built-in diversity and efforts to develop more costly professional courses could never keep up. The stresses on France's universities are common to other industrialised countries. What is different is France's uniquely centralised education system.

It is a machine which was capable of introducing mass higher education faster than other systems. But French centralism is and always has been justified as a mechanism providing equality. In education, this means homogeneity is an essential principle - all French universities should offer the same opportunities.

That notion of equality is behind the students' apparently kamikaze rush to be let on to already over-full courses. It is behind their refusal to consider any reform which changes the open access principle, even in order to prevent the cruel selection through failure one year on. French universities were bound to reach a profound crisis when differences between institutions or regions reached critical limits. The only difference, not just allowed but cultivated, is with the grandes ecoles.

"I will not become the education minister who introduced selection," Francois Bayrou said while students demonstrated last week. To say anything else would have been political suicide.

The centralised French system throws all conflicts straight back at the minister and is geared for decisive, top-down reform, not the type of gradual, local, reversible policies which could perhaps nudge higher education onto a different track without student revolt.

Successive governments have found it impossible to act before a crisis, and dynamite to act during one. Amid fierce political debate, complex issues are reduced to slogans and governments are tempted to seek short-term solutions.

So, if the unrest is different this time, can the solution, for once, be different too? There is a new factor which provides hope. For the first time, France's university presidents have stepped into the fray. They have presented a modest list of demands for resources, but what their action suggests about their own role and responsibilities in the crisis goes much further.

If their demands are met, the universities may calm down - for a while. If their thinking on university autonomy progresses, they may decide the time has come when they must run their universities, not central government. University autonomy alone cannot solve impossible demands on the system, but it could allow universities to seek ways to offer students something other than today's dismal mass struggle for survival.

Stella Hughes is The THES Paris correspondent.

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