To the barricades - it's time for a lesson in politics

April 23, 2004

If academics want to fight cuts, they should ape the French and appeal to the national interest, says Ruth Morse

France has a recently refreshed rightwing government, and cuts in university and research funding are the order of the day. When the former French education minister Luc Ferry addressed the country with the usual pieties that the universities are a public service and part of the "common wealth", one knew what to expect. And, indeed, Ferry piously wished for universities that combined quality and attractiveness. Then he moved into the econo-speak that is so consistent across Europe: universities must be competitive in their research and their preparation of students for the world of work. What he meant, of course, was that natural sciences, engineering and technology must be competitive internationally at inventing things that will make money.

Meanwhile, he cut research posts across the board. Ferry also cut the number of posts offered to this season's candidates for entry into secondary school teaching by up to 40 per cent, including especially severe cuts in English. These swingeing cuts have been, not surprisingly, one of the issues behind voters' recent rejection of Jacques Chirac's coalition government, and the replacement of Ferry with Francois Fillon.

Directors of labs, research groups and heads of research have been resigning their "administrative" responsibilities in thousands. By and large, protests from within the teaching and research community traditionally fall on deaf ears. Even protests from the international community have left the preachers of budgetary rigour unmoved. The massive anti-government vote in the regional elections has, however, attracted more attention. The government's immediate response has been that its labour of "pedagogy" has been insufficient.

This will sound familiar, but comparisons with Britain are difficult, because French higher education functions in two quite different tiers: the 150 grandes écoles , which are small, selective and fee-paying; and the universities, which are huge, open-entry and almost free. In the former, retention and success rates are high; in the latter, a 50 per cent dropout rate for the first diploma is normal. But some policies will sound very déjà entendu . Current government thinking is to divide the already divided universities into those with a teaching mission, and those that will combine teaching with research as, predictably, centres of excellence.

How assessments are to be made is an unrevealed mystery. It is perhaps surprising that a system as centralised as French Education Nationale should escape such procedures as teaching quality assessments and research assessment exercises. Every four years, universities have to report to the education ministry, in truncated form, to maintain their rights to teach graduate students, offer teaching towards the national exams and enjoy the prestige of a research grant - although it is the non-payment of that grant, backdated to 2002, that set off protests.

What action is possible? French universities have no independent endowments, can fix no fees, establish no new disciplines nor regulate the hours required for their courses. Rival professional unions exist, but they must concern themselves with terms and conditions at the basic level, not with research or the fuite des cerveaux . There are no figures for the brain drain, but anecdotal evidence suggests that significant numbers of top students in scientific and medical research are not returning from postdoctoral studies abroad, especially the US. For university teachers, it becomes necessary to appeal to nationalism - like keeping Canovas or Raphaels in national galleries.

Students are not at university for our reasons and want different things.

There is little scope for direct action that does not hold them hostage.

But when their parents register their anger at the ballot box over attacks on social goods such as education, we are reminded that sometimes we, too, need to think and act more energetically about our own public pedagogy.

Ruth Morse is professeur des universités at Université Paris VII.

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