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Higher education priorities after the French election

As in many countries and for similar reasons, and despite recurring changes in electoral majorities, French research and higher education policies have for the past 35 years been working towards the development of universities’ autonomy and accountability. Even if the reforms undertaken remain under dispute, there has been a profound restructuring of the landscape.

Thirty-five years after the first shudders of incremental reforms, 10 years after the start of radical reforms, what questions should be on the agenda of a new presidency?

What autonomy?

University autonomy remains very much a partially achieved objective. France thus maintains its position at the rearguard of the 28 countries analysed by the European University Association in 2011 and 2017.

In concrete terms, this means that:

  • If the power of universities' presidential teams has increased, it is only by a very small margin in terms of defining the nature and composition of their governance bodies;
  • Tuition fees (between €184 and €512 according to the level of national diploma taken), modest to the point of being nearly free of charge, are set centrally;
  • The freedom to define curricula is limited;
  • The use of foreign languages in teaching is subject to many limitations;
  • Recruitment and promotion procedures are still controlled nationally;
  • Teaching services are uniform and the salaries of state teachers, who are civil servants, are subject to the same public sector pay scale regardless of their prestige, performance or the institution they teach in;
  • And last but not least, the selection of students at university, unlike at the grandes écoles, is banned, in the same way that the organisation of specific education pathways based on skills is also forbidden.

It was not until 2017 that the right of selection for a masters degree was won. Locally and nationally, people have tried to find all sorts of ways around these national rules. Among the most absurd examples is the recent government decision, which, in order to preserve the principle of non-selection, allows universities to choose students based on a lottery when a university doesn’t have sufficient capacity in any given discipline.

In all these respects, the grandes écoles have historically enjoyed much greater freedom of action and basic resources than universities.

State bureaucracy is far from having melted away in favour of autonomy. In fact, the ministry workforce in charge of higher education has not decreased significantly since the early 2000s and its organisational structure remains unchanged. The political and corporate lobbies have not disarmed and intra- and inter-ministerial rivalry has difficulty containing them.

However, the introduction of a competitive financing component for higher education institutions partially changed the situation. That includes the creation of a research funding agency in 2006, an evaluation agency in 2007 as well as the powerful PIA or Investments for the Future Programme in 2010.

The PIA has spent just shy of €30 billion (US$33 billion) to date on competitive calls targeting higher education institutions and decisions on funding are taken by independent, national or international panels. All of this has helped public decision-making escape the control of politico-scientific networks.

Rejecting micromanagement

So how can a new government build on this? It must first continue the empowerment of universities by loosening the constraints mentioned above, reducing the role of the ministry and making government’s job less about micromanaging higher education institutions. The ministry must create an enabling environment for the autonomy initiative and ensure that a legitimate system of evaluation recognises quality and can say 'what works' and 'what does not'.

It must also rebalance the ongoing competition between universities and schools in terms of autonomy and financial resources.

The reforms have led to the coming together of heterogeneous institutions according to their statutes and performance under the canopy of new universities on territories which are sometimes as vast as a whole administrative region. This was based on two different beliefs.

According to the first, the segmentation of the sector – from the Napoleonic times to the aftermath of May 1968 – was outdated and not in keeping with the model used by the world's top universities. Territorialisation aimed to bring together, or even merge, institutions that had been juxtaposed or sliced up over the course of history.

The aim was to replace the tangle of 40 public research organisations, almost 90 universities of various sizes and performance and more than 200 grandes écoles with 30 new universities. These new institutions would be united by a common identity and strategy, which would be recognisable worldwide and would produce economies of scale.

These objectives had both the advantage and the disadvantage of ignoring the inertia surrounding fixed identities and powers at the institutions and the multiple political uncertainties around implementation.

On the benefits side, this risky bet has proved productive: the strong incentives of the three laws on higher education and research in 2006, 2007 and 2013, and the PIA have fostered an increasing number of mergers and federations of institutions at the local level, at times involving more than 100,000 students.

As for disadvantages, these alliances have led to many contortions to bring, sometimes by force, the various local components of the French educational system under a unified governance, superimposed on each organisation’s own governance structure. Far from simplifying the landscape by creating a beautiful new territorial order, the reforms have spawned a 'millefeuille' at the heart of which are overlapping and tangled loyalties, governance and ambitions.

World-class excellence

The second belief was that the new universities with large numbers of students which had achieved multidisciplinarity and addressed their governance issues would acquire the intrinsic virtue of being able to align themselves alongside ‘world-class institutions’, so overcoming the trauma caused by the poor French performance since the first Shanghai ranking of 2003. This, even though the world's top-ranked institutions are not always the biggest or the most multidisciplinary.

As a result, state higher education institutions are faced with the two contradictory demands of territorialisation and excellence: on the one hand, forced to regroup territorially, regardless of their status and performance, on the other pushed towards 'scientific excellence'.

The new government therefore needs to stop constantly legislating and to trust institutions to decide their alliances for themselves. In particular, it needs to recognise the contradiction between a call to territorialisation and a focus on excellence, seeing in the model of the Community of Universities imposed by the law of 2013 a useful device for stimulating sometimes welcome links between institutions which should not have the effect of constraining future co-operation.

Concentration of resources

In France, as elsewhere, the development of competitive financing has favoured the concentration of resources and benefited the most efficient centres. However, in a context of fierce budgetary constraint, it has brought the growing impoverishment of universities that are performing less well in research.

Low increases, or even stagnation or decline, in universities' basic grants have kept them in the lower average range of funding per student for OECD countries, while unconditional funding for the grandes écoles has been little affected.

This situation particularly affects those universities which are not engaged in cutting-edge research and therefore are not well positioned to attract competitive funding, although they are at the forefront of absorbing the uncontrolled growth of student enrolments and are therefore vital to the training of the future qualified workforce.

The new government therefore needs to rethink the many asymmetries of financial, regulatory and institutional resources between grandes écoles and universities. It should also seek to reassure 'excellence' institutions and operations about what will happen after the eventual completion of the PIA programme.

It should also not neglect the institutions that currently lose out due to the stratification of the system, recognising the variety of forms excellence can take, especially with regard to teaching innovations. All this clearly does require new budgetary efforts.

To address these proposals the new government needs an awareness of the essential role of higher education as a source of economic dynamism and democratic strength. This will not be easy in a degraded situation where politics may be tempted to leave non-urgent problems on one side.

The electoral choice

So what choice was on offer in the final round of the presidential election? The candidates’ programmes were very different. The literally reactionary ambitions of Marine Le Pen would have taken higher education institutions back to the supposedly good old days. Her propositions flew in the face of current developments and the wishes of the majority of the academic profession and university leadership, for instance, the Conference of University Presidents or CPU.

Her few proposals, put forward by an education committee which included only two academics, both specialists in public law, and many secondary school teachers, intended to restore "the authority of the state" and ensure higher education institutions are treated "as part of the civil service and not as business firms". For instance, she would have seen the management of human resources and universities' real estate returned to central state control.

She would also have removed the right of the grandes écoles to set their own fees. She planned to "defend the French language" by overturning recent provisions which opened up a narrow pathway for teaching in a foreign language. She did not question the policy of free access to universities and was against selection, but didn't explain how she would deal with the financial consequences of such a choice.

The more sophisticated programme put forward by Emmanuel Macron, created by a committee of eminent academics from diverse disciplines and university leaders, followed the path taken by the ongoing reforms. He supported more autonomy for universities and the grandes écoles, including freedom to define their own curricula and recruit their own teachers.

While he said nothing about how to deal with the discrepancy between universities and the grandes écoles, he said he wishes to "safeguard" universities' block grants and favours the diversification of their funding base. He proposed to encourage those establishments which are socially open, have efficient links to the labour market and have a decent share of European, private and public co-funding, a good research performance and an ambitious real estate policy.

We wait to see how Macron will put an administration together and what direction it will take.

Professor Catherine Paradeise is emeritus professor of universities at the Institut Francilien Recherche, Innovation, Société or IFRIS. She was president of IFRIS from 2007 to 2012 and is now its honorary president.
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