New French revolution: liberté, inégalité et autonomie

Freedoms could result in more businesslike leaders in the academy, but how will staff fare? Hannah Fearn reports

August 19, 2010

A law passed by President Nicolas Sarkozy to introduce institutional autonomy to French higher education is set to create a new breed of university leaders, it has been suggested.

Experts say rapid change in the sector will result in the emergence of a group of strong, ambitious university heads acting as advocates for their institutions, streamlining and rationalising staff and bureaucracy and perhaps even pursuing mergers with other universities.

Under the 2007 Law for the Freedom and Responsibility of Universities, Mr Sarkozy granted institutions more freedom from state control. By last month, 51 of the country's 85 universities had gained autonomous status.

The government is also pouring billions of euros into French higher education with the aim of boosting its international reputation and addressing the imbalance between the grandes écoles - elite, selective higher education institutions that operate outside the main university system - and the rest of the French academy.

Andrée Sursock, senior adviser at the European Universities Association, said that with their new freedoms, institutions would need a new kind of leader.

"Given that the law gives more autonomy, it requires a different kind of leadership," she explained. "They have more freedom to manage their resources - human resources, financial resources and links to industry. All those things are going to require a person who can lead more strategically."

Paul Benneworth, senior researcher in higher education policy at the University of Twente's Center for Higher Education Policy Studies, said the reforms had created the opening that could allow French universities to attract and develop the kind of leaders found in UK universities since the 1990s.

"This is the kind of leader who says: 'We are this kind of university, we are going to streamline our procedures, close underperforming departments and become world-class in our own way,'" he said.

He also envisaged French university leaders increasingly being "prepared to become very unpopular and face down the conservative forces in universities, including the staff and student unions".

However, the model that is developing in France is not an exact replica of the one that has given birth to the modern British vice-chancellor - for example, French university presidents will still be elected.

Change is going to come

The new breed of university leader being forecast is expected to prove divisive.

Rank-and-file academics have already protested about the power that presidents have been granted under Mr Sarkozy's reforms.

Dr Sursock said it was "human nature" to protest against such a radical change.

"It is much more complicated now to run a university community and to get everybody on board," she said. "Academics have less power than they used to have, and collegiate decision-making is eroding."

One of the least popular developments among academics could be the prospect of mergers as the new leaders assert their authority and autonomy.

Already, Ceram Business School and ESC Lille have joined forces, and partnerships between universities are booming thanks to government funding to encourage collaboration.

The next structural shifts are predicted to be a grouping of institutions within Lyon and another in Lille, both of which are cities with a history of institutional collaboration.

New universities are also likely to join the Paris-Saclay "super- campus", which aims to emulate the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Later, some predict, universities in Bordeaux and Strasbourg may follow suit by bringing small institutions together to create a single city campus.

Dr Benneworth said that he expected "convenience mergers" to mature into something more successful.

"Like Gérard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell in the film Green Card, some of those will actually find that they can get on well with one another and are prepared to let one or another manager lead them into a true merger."

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