Joseph Stiglitz, distinguished economist and Nobel laureate, used to say that, in his long experience as a consultant for governments and companies, he had heard over and over again the complaint: "It's not fair." On the other hand people very seldom complained: "It's not efficient." As every politician knows, justice and fairness carry a much greater emotional appeal than economic efficiency.
Education, together with health and welfare, is a clear case in which fairness competes with efficiency to shape government policy. One can envisage education as a fundamental right of citizenship. Questions then arise as to the precise definition, content and extent of this right. Once the matter has been settled by the law and the courts, the government has to ensure that this right is protected and every citizen enjoys it to the fullest, regardless of cost.
Alternatively, one can see education as an object of private consumption, benefiting each of its holders in ways that are particular and unique: some of us seek knowledge for its own sake, others want to be trained for a job, and what is of interest to me may be irrelevant to you. There are then sound reasons to treat education like any other economic good, which means that it should be paid for by the particular individual who happens to be consuming it, or at least that he or she should bear some of the cost.
Since 1968, French society has definitely taken the first approach, and the speech by Francois Bayrou last week in the great lecture hall of the Sorbonne, means that there will be no turning back. Before a large audience, with the prime minister sitting in the front row, the minister of education and research unveiled his plan for the future of the French university system. The date was well chosen, since it was on the same day in 1940 that General de Gaulle spoke from exile in London, calling on the French to continue the struggle against the Nazis.
And there were indeed Gaullist overtones in the minister's speech. There is "a French and republican idea of the university", and we are all sharing in it. From this idea follow a certain number of basic principles, the first of which being that universities should remain open, free, and equal.
Every bachelier has the hard-won right to enrol in any course of studies he or she wishes, in any university they please. Tuition fees will be kept nominal. There will be no competition between universities and all diplomas delivered throughout the nation will be equivalent. From the basic right to education other rights follow: the right to try again, if one fails or finds his choice to be mistaken, and again, and again; the right to financial support when needed; the right to be prepared for the job market by special courses and adequate training.
From these basic principles the speech proceeded almost by itself. Much had been done, but still more would be required. The university system has done a remarkable job since 1968, absorbing a tenfold increase in the number of students and turning them into hard-working and proficient citizens. It had opened up to society at large, developed new types of professional education and vocational training, and set up an extensive policy of internships.
It is now common for French students to spend several months in private businesses or government agencies as part of their studies. At the same time, universities have managed to keep research at the highest international level, with Nobel prizes and Fields medals going to French professors. All this going to prove that we are moving in the right direction, and the government would make every effort to support this trend, provided it cost no money.
Mr Bayrou then enumerated a number of improvements, with a vague calendar of implementation for each of them, and the speech tapered off in the description of a rosy future, with the generalisation of higher education ushering in a new revolution leading towards a society where all men and women enjoy the fruits of knowledge equally.
Of course, when the applause has died and the audience has filtered out, one remains with the nagging doubt: leaving the rhetoric aside, can it work? Is there anything there, except a thinly veiled apology for not having anything to offer, a kind of rain dance for lack of a sprinkler?
Providing every French youth with a first-class education adapted to their particular abilities is fine, but where is the money going to come from?
And who will be left to run the machines if everyone is trained to run the company? Worse still, can the country really afford the growing number of students, many of whom are receiving some kind of financial support, in terms of scholarships, reduced rates, lodging allowances, or tax rebates?
The bill is already running into tens of billions of francs, much higher, for instance, than the budget for construction and maintenance, and if there is nothing to check the growing number of students and the growing list of privileges, it could balloon out of all proportion.
How is this country going to work? But then, brighter thoughts carry the day. Here at last we have a minister who has something nice to say about us and who recognises the issues. Gone are the days of Francois Fillon, when the government had no use at all for professional education or vocational training; the days when high officials in the ministry could see no connection between university programmes and the job market. It is popular wisdom that people in power do us good enough when they do us no harm, and Mr Bayrou may actually do even better than that.
He has pushed universities further down the road towards autonomy, by emphasising the importance of the contract which each of them negotiates with the government every four years. He has given the university system a few years in which to experiment withits own solutions, in the assurance that there will be no far-reaching reforms imposed from the top down in the near future.
No politician is going to travel the same road as Francois Bayrou, calling forth all the actors of the university system and listening to their ideas, with the risk of either doing too little and appearing foolish, or doing too much and arousing some uncontrollable passions.
Universities are left to their own devices for some time. There is much to be tried. There is much we do not know, and much we have not tried. Continuing education, for instance. There is an enormous need for it in the country, and it might kill several birds with one stone.
It may help universities financially, it may entice students to leave the system early, in the hope of returning after earning some professional experience, and it may change French society by infusing the idea that one's future is not decided at 20. So we are in for some years of experimentation - interesting times ahead.
Ivar Ekeland lectures at the Ceremade et Institut de Finance, Universite Paris-Dauphine.