The Gallic exception: it is time for a giraffe of a system to evolve

Developed along idiosyncratic lines since the age of Napoleon, France's universities must embrace globalisation, Zoe McKenzie says

August 21, 2008

It is notoriously difficult to compare the university system of France with that of other nations. Since the imposition of the Imperial University by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800s, the French tertiary structure has grown organically and idiosyncratically from its own roots.

The French system has few imported attributes and very few similarities to its European counterparts. If the French university system were a language, it would be Hungarian. If it were an animal, it would have to be a giraffe. If it were a telecommunications system, it would, of course, be Minitel, France's idiosyncratic early version of the internet.

But around the world, expectations of what universities do, and how they do it, are converging. Most university systems are benefiting from a globalisation that brings international teams of researchers together and provides education across borders.

France, with its giraffe of a higher education system, risks getting caught out in a rapidly homogenising world in which autonomous state-funded institutions are accountable to the taxpayer and subject to competition.

When comparing the French system with its counterparts, it appears in some respects vibrant and highly competitive. Its engineering schools, its grandes ecoles and its preparation of the administration and academic elite through the Ecole Nationale de l'Administration and Ecole Normale Superieure are beyond comparison.

These institutions are largely autonomous, usually multidisciplinary in approach and internationally engaged with schools of similar standing overseas.

Beneath this layer of excellence, however, the university sector is well below what is expected from the globe's fifth most significant economic power. France's universities are neither autonomous nor accountable. Few are multidisciplinary, fewer market-oriented.

Unsurprisingly, France's universities do not rate well, either in the eyes of international peers or their own student base. Only two featured in the top 50 institutions in the latest Times Higher Education/QS World Rankings.

They are the last choice of school students, who would rather subject themselves to years of gruelling preparation to enter a grande ecole than submit to exams for a university degree.

France's universities remain shackled to the bureaucracy, and the marriage between the university and state has endured so long that it is now difficult to determine where the university ends and the state begins.

This lack of autonomy has a direct impact on the quality of education in French universities. With salaries set by the state, they cannot offer competitive packages to attract talent. Nor can they implement innovative new courses without submitting to years of negotiation; they are also barred from imposing selection criteria that would weed out unsuitable students.

Many argue that it is a question of money, yet France spends about the same per student as Ireland and Japan. France's student dropout rate is about 40 per cent, Ireland's 20 per cent and Japan's just over 10 per cent. The question is more about what is done with the money, and whether it is best targeted to achieve results.

The irony is that while there is micro-management of salaries and courses, there is very little attempt to ascertain if money is spent wisely. While universities are required to negotiate four-year contracts with the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, no one methodically monitors their achievements or failures against their undertakings, nor requires them to reimburse the state for commitments that remain unmet.

Budgets are opaque, and potentially mask great inequalities in the system. No one outside the ministry knows how much is spent on a student in biology at Paris V or at Bordeaux II. As such, no one knows how much "better off" students may be at one university compared with another. This seems strange in a country so wedded to concepts of uniformity and equality.

But this may be about to change. At the end of June, the National Assembly committee dealing with the allocation of resources called for the full disclosure of current funding levels and the imposition of a transparent funding scheme. It also demanded performance pay in both teaching and research to be based on student results in exams and employment outcomes. While its suggestions are radical for France, this report is under careful consideration by the Government.

France's higher education system has a long tradition of independence from international trends. For that reason its excellence is home grown, but so are its failings. Like Minitel, which has given way to a faster, more efficient, adaptable and globally linked service in the form of the internet, France's universities must find a new way forward.

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