FRANCE: More reform needed: OECD

Recent reforms have laid the initial groundwork for university autonomy, but more needs to be done such as letting institutions fix their own tuition fees and select their students, says the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in its latest Economic Survey of France.

But the OECD approves of a number of significant reforms that have "breathe[d] new life into public research" by increasing its funding and strengthening its organisation and governance.

The report, prepared as it says during the severe recession gripping all developed countries, notes that prospects for 2010 remain highly uncertain. But one short-term priority must be to make French firms more competitive, including reinforcement of research and innovation.

The OECD describes the government's Universities Freedom and Responsibility Act (LRU) as an important step towards autonomy in French universities. It says that while this aspect of the reform should boost the quality and efficiency of higher education, it needs to go further, particularly in the areas of budgeting and hiring and remuneration.

As well, the reform "has not been accompanied by any explicit selection of students at entry... or any significant increase in tuition fees", the report says. And, in reviewing the structural reform of French educational policy, it compares recommendations it made in previous surveys with measures adopted since the last in June 2007.

These were, and still are:
* Give higher education institutions more autonomy in financial and personnel management. The LRU of August 2007 laid the groundwork for autonomy in universities and was implemented for the first 20 institutions in 2009 and will be for other institutions within five years.
* Candidates for university entry should be explicitly selected and students offered more effective guidance at the beginning of the last year of lycée. The move to university autonomy has not been accompanied by the freedom to select students for admission.

On the other hand, guidance for baccalauréat holders will be improved through publication of statistics on success rates in examinations, obtaining a degree, further studies and finding a job, and an 'active guidance' scheme was generalised in 2009.

Universities now send prospective students a non-binding advisory about their wishes, steering them towards programmes in which they would have the greatest chance of success.

* Raise university tuition fees to reflect the cost of the various courses. But university autonomy has not included this freedom and tuition fees remain regulated by the state.
* Introduce a nationwide system of student loans with provisions for income-contingent repayment through the income tax system. A new student loan has been launched, offered at market interest rates with deferred repayment.
* Harmonise the diploma-granting and recruitment rules of the grandes écoles and the universities. A first step has been taken with the Bologna process and establishment of pôles de recherche et d'enseignement supérieur (PRES, 'research and higher education clusters').

The survey finds the governance of public research has been improved: "A number of significant reforms have been launched recently to breathe new life into public research by increasing its funding, but also by strengthening its organisation and governance," it says.

These include creation of AERES, the research and higher education evaluation agency, which had "laid the foundation for evaluating universities and laboratories more systematically against criteria such as publications and patents".

Likewise, reform at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) "designed to enhance its cooperation with universities and other national research organisations, is a welcome step and should also help improve the productivity of public research".

The new National Research Agency (ANR) should be supported and its role expanded inasmuch as it promotes project-oriented public research. This will make for a more balanced allocation of resources in comparison with a situation where funds are awarded essentially on an institutional basis, the report states.

It says that although the recession in France should be less severe than elsewhere, the economic prospects for 2010 remain highly uncertain. One priority for the short-term challenge of pulling the economy out of the recession must be to make French firms more competitive and that involves "major determinants", such as research and innovation.

France's innovation deficit measured by a relatively low level of R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP has been a drag on the country's foreign trade performance, the report says. In 2006, France's R&D intensity was higher than that of the 27-country European Union (1.8%), but lower than in the best performing OECD countries.

It says there are too few innovative small and medium enterprises, and little private research and development compared with other countries in Scandinavia, Japan, the US and Germany.

As well, the country suffers from weak private sector involvement in public research with little mobility or interaction between researchers in the public and private sectors.

"The overall framework for promoting research is too fragmented...[reflecting]... a dispersion of higher education and research institutions but also the low productivity of research".

The report adds: "A number of policies have been introduced or developed to deal with these insufficiencies", including promotion of 'competitiveness clusters', changes to the research tax credit and a general reform of universities, and of university research in particular.

It seems to me quite stunning that the OECD can only see increased student fees as a new "freedom" for the universities, and not as a new obstacle to learning and to the flourishing of young people's personalities, especially for those students who cannot afford higher fees or who must work long hours in day jobs to fund their studies.

I work at Paris 12 university, and thank goodness fees are no higher. I already have some students who work the night shift at frozen food factories to fund their studies! Research shows that in countries such as Britain which have increased fees a lot, the percentage of working-class young people going to universities has fallen sharply. Some progress!

John Mullen