French higher education has lived something of a revolution over the past decade. The specificities of French higher education, which put it at odds with the rest of the world and have accentuated France's reputation as a champion of anti-globalisation, are being washed away by the current government through a cumulative process of liberalisation and differentiation backed by unprecedented public investment.
French universities are tacking up the challenge of globalisation in all its meanings.
The previous system, which inspired Russia in the 19th Century and relied on differentiation between research institutions (CNRS), selective training schools for elite civil servants and managers (grandes ecoles) and non-selective universities, had left universities at the bottom of the pile, leading to an absence of international recognition.
Three particularly significant reforms, which benefited from earlier coordinated European efforts under the Bologna process as well as strategic political appointments of twice minister for higher education and research Francois Fillon as prime minister as well as the discreet advice of Bernard Belloc and Jean-Marc Monteil, respectively special advisors to the president and prime minister, have moved French higher education in a new direction.
The first reform is the law for the freedom and responsibilities of universities of 11 August 2007, which liberalised the French university landscape by giving more managerial autonomy to institutions, and hence to university presidents, in the recruitment of staff, the management of assets and the ability to raise income through the creation of foundations.
From an Anglo-American perspective, this model of autonomous universities is common. And it would be hard to comprehend how significant this law is in bypassing the traditional opposition of the higher education community against a retreat of central government control. Earlier legislative proposals failed because of serious opposition, for example, in 1986 with Devaquet or 2003 under Luc Ferry.
According to Christine Musselin from the Centre de Sociologie des Organisations in Sciences Po, this opposition comes from a traditional formation of academic life around discipline-oriented faculties, resulting in a distrust of academics toward the university president. More autonomy also involves an increase in workload to adapt to these reforms.
A second reform includes an effort toward differentiation based on public investment. This differentiation operates on perceived managerial and research excellence across faculty and institutions, and is based on the idea that globalisation and equality do not go hand in hand: certain institutions and scholars need to be favoured to become internationally visible.
It includes the reform of the regulations of teachers-researchers of 22 April 2009, which set up performance-related bonuses and chairs of excellence. Operation Campus, a plan to concentrate public investment in flagship campuses, a spin-off from France's EUR35 billion (US$50 billion) investment Plan de Relance strategy to relaunch its economy, saw 12 universities get an unprecedented EUR5 billion in public investment.
Finally, French higher education is also opening up to the global environment, developing international partnerships and embracing the 'Great Brain Race' by targeting the international student market, particularly from Asia.
Interestingly, in a somewhat paradoxical manner first underlined by Sophie Meunier and Philip Gordon in the case of trade, the French embraced globalisation at the same time as they shouted out loudly against it. The French government presented globalisation as a threat to justify and stimulate these reforms.
The Shanghai university rankings, in which only a handful of French universities make it to the top 100, caused serious offence in a country which prided itself on its historic scholarly reputation, and still dominates debates regarding the reform of universities.
The publication of the Shanghai rankings coincided with the emergence of a very critical debate regarding French higher education. Aghion and Cohen's 2004 report for the Social and Economic Council underlined the common perception of 'crisis, impossible reforms and decline of French universities'. And a recent report by the Institut Montaigne entitled Gone for Good underlined the brain drain of French academics toward the US.
The arguments took off. The French government did not meet the traditional opposition from the higher education sector to its new wave of reforms. The 2007 proposal even surprisingly brought in a certain level of consensus, opposition coming only from the relatively minor and most radical trade unions, such as the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (Communist Revolutionary League).
Fundamentally speaking, the French government and its higher education landscape face the same double pressure as most other countries in the world; massification of higher education coupled with worldwide competition for the best and the brightest.
Implementing the reforms that respond to these pressures presents several challenges, including one of available human resources and expertise. New French universities require new managers trained in a more autonomous management style, who understand the challenges inherent to a global higher education landscape and embrace an open and free space to exchange best practice and think about policy-oriented solutions.
These managerial challenges are tackled French-style with a strong input from the central government and the civil service. Expertise and policy solutions still mostly come from reports, which are centrally commissioned by the government.
Aware of the new needs, the training school attached to the Ministry for National Education ESEN (Ecole Superieure de l'Education Nationale) and the publicly-funded organisation AMUE (Agence de Mutualisation des Universités et Etablissements) set up a training programme for existing university managers.
Another trend, according to a senior government official, would be to bring in civil servant managers of public administrations, trained in selective public school administration by the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, to take over managerial positions traditionally taken up by academics.
This process of 'muddling through' new structures using pre-existing resources is defining the still uncertain shape of French higher education, one where global liberal pressures will have to embrace the French tradition of civil service.
* Cecile Hoareau is a researcher in the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley. Her article "Globalisation and Dual Modes of Higher Education Policymaking in France: Je t'aime moi non plus" is available on the CSHE site.
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