Despite all its shortcomings, there are a few pleasant things about the French system of higher education. One of them is that this writer is never short of copy. Yesterday Le Monde carried the headline: "Universities on strike, demand more money". This morning, the radio reminds me that this week, every single university president - all 80 of them - is urgently summoned to the ministry of ed-ucation to discuss the basic needs of his or her university.
Students have taken to the streets again, as parliament is debating the 1996 budget. Once more television screens show pictures of overflowing lecture rooms, and newspapers carry stories showing the dismal state of many universities, suffering from shortages of staff and faculty, and lack of adequate facilities.
As ever the government is applying the well-worn policy of immediately rewarding the loudest complaints with bonus increases and promising to find money in the future by taking it from the rich to give to the poor. The poor in this case are mostly the many universities that have newly been created out of nothing in the middle of nowhere (La Rochelle, Tabes, Auch), and which have neither professors nor, of course, students, while the rich tend to be the older and well-established universities (the Sorbonne, Strasbourg, Grenoble), which have the misfortune of attracting professors and students.
The main problem is that France has never had a coherent policy for higher education. The Giscard years were lean years, during which all recruiting into education and research basically stopped. Then came the Mitterrand years, during which the course was apparently firmly set by the 1984 law on higher education, the so-called Savary law, which still rules universities today. Its main provision is that there should be free entry into universities for every high school graduate. As a result, the number of students in higher education has risen from 1.3 million in 1984 to 2.1 million today.
This, of course, is in many ways a fine result, especially if one bears in mind that the vast majority of these students pay only nominal tuition fees.
However, French society has never come to grips with the full consequences of this new policy. The left, who initiated it and who can rightly claim it as a major success of the Mitterrand years, never had the guts to spell out its costs, except for the 1992 period when Jospin was minister of education and had enough political pull to launch a major effort to expand and overhaul the university system. The right never accepted it, tried to change it, and failed: the major cause of Chirac's defeat by Mitterrand in the 1988 presidential election may have been the 1986 student riots, which were caused by a clumsy attempt to curtail the free access to universities guaranteed by the Savary law. The result is that the government now is stuck with an education policy it does not want, and can claim with some bitterness that its political opponents have left them with the bills.
The money is simply not there. France is an old country, and some of the best-known universities go back to the Middle Ages. They are now, of course, in the middle of large cities, so that if they were to expand to accommodate the growing number of students (60,000 students in Paris-6, which is only one of the seven universities located in the Quartier Latin) the cost would be tremendous. To counter this, the government has tried to create new universities in smaller places, where building is cheap. But it is not easy to create a university out of nothing: professors will not go because there is no research environment, students will not go because the range of courses offered is very limited. Anyway there are not enough posts covered by the budget to staff these new universities adequately. In France, every professor and every administrator is a civil servant, so that opening an assistant professorship in mathematics at the University of Auch requires an Act of Parliament, and burdens the general budget of the state.
To understand the magnitude of the problem, consider that the minister of education has announced that indeed the strikers at the University of Rouen have convinced him that it is sadly understaffed, and has committed himself to providing 200 faculty positions in Rouen over the next few years. This is about one-seventh of the total number of new positions that are provided in the 1995 budget for the whole of France, and there are perhaps 30 or 40 universities which have as good a cause as Rouen to complain. Bear also in mind that about half of all university faculty in France will retire between the years 2000 and 2010, so that one should be providing staff for them right now.
Who can believe the minister? Clearly no one does, which clouds all these problems in a general atmosphere of distrust. The ministry has a history of breaching contracts. Between 1988 and 1992, all universities in France negotiated four-year contracts with the government whereby they committed themselves to specific objectives, in exchange for which the minister committed himself to providing a certain amount of funding and positions during that period. In 1993, the new minister informed everyone that the commitment on positions - the most important one - would not be fulfilled. At that time, this writer was told by a high official in the ministry: "A government cannot commit its successor." True, perhaps, but hardly a basis for a long-range policy of any kind.
So there is no coherent policy or long-term planning, only scattered bits of policy floating around, without fitting into a general strategy. Each of these policies serves a special interest group, and the political system does not play its role of setting priorities and defining an overall purpose. There is the policy of safeguarding the Napoleonic systems of elite schools (Ecole Polytechnique, Ecole Nationale d'Administration), with the general idea that this is where you get any higher education worth speaking of, while universities are there to babysit those who did not make it and keep them off the unemployment list for a while. There is the policy of developing professional, technological and vocational training, with the idea that since we have all these young people coming into universities, one might as well educate them towards getting a job.
There is the policy of turning higher education policy into a way of reviving the smaller French cities, each of which will be more than happy to become a university town and may even contribute funds to that purpose. There is the policy of trying to sneak private universities into the system, with the hope of changing it by a Darwinian process of survival of the fittest with less political cost than changing it by regulation.
Not a nice picture. But it is the one we are stuck with until there is some kind of political initiative that will clear the field. Right now, higher education is a hot potato which no politician will touch because the main issues have never been resolved. No one knows whether the Savary law is going to be the cornerstone of French education for the coming 20 years or whether it will go away as soon as some politician musters up the courage to put the question to a vote. President Chirac did mention a referendum on education during his campaign, but this idea seems to have gone down the drain too.
Ivar Ekeland is a former president of the University of Paris-Dauphine.