Ever since Napoleon centralised French university management and downgraded individual institutions to “academies”, successive French governments have had a top-down relationship with universities. The elite-building grandes écoles can evade reform even when they increase their fees by nearly two-thirds in less than a decade, as they did between 2009 and 2018, but universities are very much subject to bureaucratic whim.
Witness prime minister Édouard Philippe’s “Choose France” initiative. This ambitious strategy is designed to increase the number of foreign students in France from 324,000 to 500,000 by 2027 while raising international fees significantly: from €243 (£208) to €3,770 for master’s students, for instance (a sum that will go to the universities to compensate for reduced state funding). Yet it was announced last November without any prior consultation.
Opinions were divided on its merits, but it was unanimously condemned at a meeting of the Conference of University Presidents hastily organised for 30 December. The resulting press release demanded the suspension of the fee increases, due to come in this year, until a consultation can be held and proposals developed to “enhance the attractiveness of France”.
By mid-January, 17 universities had announced their refusal to implement the higher fees. Interviewed on French television, Jim Walker, vice-president of the board of Lumière University Lyon 2, said that the fees would hit the most vulnerable students, particularly those from Africa, and were “contradictory to the very philosophy of French higher education and the principle of equal treatment in public service”.
The two principal student unions in France both organised protests in late January. The Federation of General Associations of Students denounced the measure as “unfair, incoherent, useless, and even dangerous for French public higher education”. The National French Union of Students decried a “halt to social mobility and a closure of French higher education”, insisting that the “same course, same teachers, same buildings” should command the same fees, and that “nationality should not be a source of discrimination”.
Higher education minister Frédérique Vidal told the Senate on 17 January that “there will be no discussion or stepping back on the principle and timetable of the proposed fee raise” and reminded universities that, as public institutions, they must “obey, and remain loyal subjects of the French government”. Yet, ahead of the student protests, she commissioned five senior figures from academia to conduct a consultation and report back by mid-February.
It is conceivable that the lack of prior consultation was motivated by a desire to circumvent the long deliberations that have historically hindered the realisation of projects in France. After all, it took Paris more than 70 years to ban the dumping of household waste in the Seine after the cholera epidemic of 1832, while thousands continued to die. But there is also a feeling that, under Emmanuel Macron, France has fully become “the society of spectacle”, which the philosopher Guy Debord depicted in 1967 as the sugar-coating of hard economic and political power with a distracting communication strategy. Macron travels regally from region to region, animating a “national debate” designed primarily to take the heat out of the recent anti-government Yellow Jacket protests.
Universities are among the parts of French society that endure as bastions of democracy and equality – even if their quality of service and teaching is questionable. Yet they have already lost this particular tug-of-war with the government.
Vidal made clear from the start that the consultation’s purpose was not to revisit the rationale for the strategy but to consider how best to implement it. Accordingly, the 36-page report confines itself to recommendations such as improving services for international students; exempting doctoral students from the fee hike; increasing from 10 to 15 per cent the proportion of students that universities can exempt from the higher fees; and permitting universities to postpone the fee increase until 2020.
The whole hullabaloo now looks more of a cosmetic show of teeth by universities amid the ongoing spectacle of the government. Meanwhile, according to a TV report, international student applications have reduced by 5 per cent since the announcement of Choose France.
Juliette Torabian is a senior international expert in education. Her research focuses primarily on comparative higher education, social justice/mobility and gender equality.