'Reform will be very difficult, but it is the only way to go'

Universities must hold nerve despite protests, says head of grande école. John Morgan reports

November 19, 2009

On freezing days in Paris last winter, the streets of the city's Latin Quarter were filled with students and academics stirred into protest.

The casual bystander would have been bemused to find right-wing law professors marching hand-in-hand with left-wing social sciences lecturers.

The crowd's rallying cry might have been equally puzzling.

"Long live the Princess of Cleves," the marchers shouted.

This was the picture with which Monique Canto-Sperber, director of the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, began a lecture on the reform of French universities at University College London this month.

What united the protesters in anger were two laws - one on university autonomy and one on new qualifications for high school teachers and academics - passed by the centre-right Government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Under the "autonomy and responsibility" law passed in July 2007, universities were given greater freedom from state control.

On 1 January this year, 20 of the country's 85 universities took up the new freedoms, with the remainder to follow suit by 2012.

Academics would now be employees of their university rather than the state, and institutions would make decisions on key issues such as the balance between teaching and research.

Most academics viewed the law as an "egregious threat to the independence of faculty members," Professor Canto-Sperber said.

Professors were previously under the authority of a National Council for Universities, with expert boards in each subject area.

"They consider themselves employees of the national education system and not of the universities they belong to."

The other reform stirring up anger is "masterisation", a reform introduced as part of the Bologna Process, aimed at harmonising Europe's higher education systems. Masters degrees and doctorates are now to be accepted as qualifications for high school and university teachers, a move seen as undermining the old agregation exam.

The agregation reflected a teacher's "depth and body of knowledge of a specific academic field" and promised "entry to the highest echelons of the intellectual world", Professor Canto-Sperber said.

The acceptance of masters is seen as a threat to the continuity between high school and university teaching and to the quality and high status of teachers' training, she added.

The two reforms had "injured" the "sense of identity of students and their professors".

The case for change

Although she described in detail the roots of opposition to university autonomy - looking back to the Revolution and the idea of state authority as a secularist defence against the power of the Church - Professor Canto-Sperber was supportive of reform.

She portrayed the current system as one in which non-selective universities, distinct from the higher-status grandes ecoles that select the best students, "don't compete with each other to attract the best students or enhance the value of their diplomas".

The nature of the French higher education system provides the explanation for the country's "homogeneous and endogenous" elite, she said, with the leading members of most fields of society the product of a small number of grande écoles.

Further evidence of the need for greater autonomy shows up in the problems scientists experience in translating research into income-generating innovation, Professor Canto-Sperber said.

This was also evidence of French academia's "disdain for everything that will be translated into economic benefit".

Professor Canto-Sperber called for the autonomy reforms to go further, transferring ownership of university premises from the state to individual institutions. But, she argued jokingly, this should be done only "after (the buildings) have been renovated".

She questioned whether many universities would have the determination to stand up to a powerful academic lobby opposed to change.

The protesters' vocal support for the Princess of Cleves was a "revolutionary rallying cry" against an attack on the French education system by Mr Sarkozy, who recalled being forced to read the "useless" 17th-century novel La Princesse de Cleves during his schooling.

Professor Canto-Sperber feared that students and professors would not give up until the reform project is "completely withdrawn".

"I have real hope that it will work, but the task will be very difficult. There is such a tradition in France of playing the state against university power," she said. "It will be a very fractious, difficult way. But it is the only way to go. I really do hope presidents of universities will have the nerve to go through difficult times."

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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