FRANCE: Liberté trumps égalité in Sarkozy's revolution

For the first half of 2009, the French university system languished in a state of near-paralysis and the troubles are not over yet.

Students and their professors, galvanised by a suite of modernisation reforms unleashed by President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon, downed pencils and chalk. Protests rolled through the rues and higher education leapt to the front page of Le Monde under headlines proclaiming "une crise" of unprecedented proportions.

As well as the stock-standard street demonstrations and campus closures, students and academics indulged in a novel form of soft protest by conducting public and rather carnivalesque readings of a book Sarkozy has publicly scorned. Reflecting on his university experience, the President described his encounter with The Princess of Cleves as "pure torture".

A courtly tale of love renounced penned in the 17th century by Madame de La Fayette, this contemplative classic is perhaps the first modern European novel. But it makes dull reading for would-be public administrators, which is Sarkozy's point.

His scorn has given the book an unexpected lustre. Both it and a little blue and white badge, "Je lis La Princesse de Cleves" (I'm reading The Princess of Cleves) became the spring's must-have highbrow accessories as the French education system ground to a halt.

Yet Patrick Hetzel, Director-General for Higher Education and a key architect of the Sarkozy reforms, rejects the rhetoric of catastrophe issuing from the streets. "We are undergoing a deep modification," Hetzel says from his Left Bank office. "It's not a crisis."

A genial man with a buzz cut atop a broad and even-featured face, Hetzel is regarded as the bureaucratic muscle-man behind this "little revolution" in the complex and highly idiosyncratic French higher education system.

The reforms, in a nutshell, offer greater financial autonomy to select universities while seeking increased accountability from them and their academics. This takes the form of performance evaluation at the individual and institutional level.

First unveiled in 2007, the reform agenda was defended by Sarkozy earlier this year in truculent terms. While declaring the "absolute priority" of quality of teaching and research, the President lambasted French research as "infantile", "immature" and "anachronistic". Without greater autonomy, he added, the universities would continue to paralyse creativity and innovation.

"We are not today (among the leading) industrial nations for research and innovation," he declaimed from the Elysée Palace. "I do not want to be unpleasant but with comparable funding a French researcher publishes 30-50% less than a British researcher in certain sectors.

"Of course if we do not want to see that, thank you for coming ... (but) it is a reality. And if reality is unpleasant it is not unpleasant because I am describing it; it is unpleasant because it is reality."

Many of the nation's 2.2 million university-level students and 147,000 staff suspected something deeply transformative was afoot, and Sarkozy's speech confirmed their suspicions. In an instant, disquiet turned into defiance.

Sarkozy's supporters, for their part, believe he may one day be remembered as the education president for his almost Thatcherite resolve in the face of concerted opposition. A further wave of reform aimed at fees and selection is likely during his term. There is no going back.

Many suspect Sarkozy of harbouring plans for an Anglo-Saxon style higher education system with greater autonomy, closer ties to business and industry, higher tuition fees and extra performance incentives for teachers and researchers. By and large, they are right.

Hetzel, author of a recent report on making the university system more responsive to the world of work, says the real crisis is in the seminar rooms, not the rues. He despairs at the dropout rate of about 80,000 students a year, the misalignment between curriculums and workplace competencies, and the 20% unemployment rate among young adults aged between 18 and 25.

The true conservatives, he claims, are the opponents of reform. Though a well-worn rhetorical strategy, this has some sting in the French context where the average age of academics is 52 and memories of the 1968 street riots that almost brought down a government are maintained by the ritual of the spring protest.

Until the passage of the autonomy laws in 2007, Hetzel says human resources and management for universities - even the salaries - were done by the ministry.

"I've never seen that anywhere else in the world. It was extremely centralised. Now, as a result of the reforms, those universities with good internal management, if they ask, have increased autonomy over their finances.

"There are troubles because some academics consider themselves civil servants paid by the state. They believe they had more prestige and power in the past when they were controlled by the state."

The protest movement has been generated by what Higher Education and Research Minister Valérie Pécresse described as an 18-month process of "uninterrupted reform".

Most of the unrest, however, is focused on a new autonomy law for universities and perceived threats to the status of academics and researchers in what is by world standards an impoverished system.

French academics and researchers are poorly paid compared with their Anglo-Saxon peers and many campuses are in a state of disrepair.

In a special report on the Sarkozy revolution, Le Monde concludes that the autonomy law, in the view of its detractors, would lead to the "financial disengagement by the state and the privatisation of the university".

Opponents are also critical of measures to increase the powers of university presidents, who will now decide how staff split their teaching and research functions, and to decrease the governing boards of universities from up to 60 members to 30.

Over and above the specific points of contestation, some French intellectuals are inclined to view the Sarkozy revolution as part of a broader assault by the economy on the world of knowledge, by the hard sciences on the humanities, by competitive Anglo-Saxon or, increasingly, global values on the egalitarian ideals undergirding the French republic.

They see past the details of the reform to the bigger picture: "It's not a piece of the motor that's changing, it's the motor itself," says one academic.

Prominent French intellectual Marcel Gauchet sees the reforms against the backdrop of a world in which the economy has devoured knowledge and understanding. "We need knowledge to help us understand our world," Gauchet says.

"If the university is no longer in a position to put forward knowledge of this order, it will have failed."

The pilots of the reform process, however, are inclined to see the failures of the French university system in more hard-nosed terms. They point to the structural weaknesses of the French higher education system, the proliferation of universities and research bodies, and lack of co-ordination in what Sarkozy calls the international "battle for intelligence".

He says no other country has produced "so many institutes, agencies, groups and other microscopic organisations that dilute means and responsibilities, pull every which way, and waste time and money".

There is also the not insignificant matter of the failure to translate research inputs into outputs.

France has only two universities and one grande école in the Shanghai Jiao Tong top 100, and officials concede French science lacks visibility largely as a result of its structural fragmentation.

"There is a real appetite for autonomy," Pécresse says. And she may be right. In July, she announced that 33 universities had joined an initial tranche of 18 opting for independence, and that as a result about 60% of the French system was now behind the autonomy law.

The regulation allows universities not only to manage their finances and human resources but to establish foundations as magnets for external funds. It was also designed to overturn a system in which the ministry authorises new academic posts and courses.

These and other reforms come with a pledge to pump an extra EUR15 billion (US$21billion) into the higher education budget: a boost of about 50% over five years. Public research has been promised a quarter of the extra money.

Although the government has pledged no university will lose money during the restructure, it concedes that most of it will be spent on "rewarding excellence" in the newly autonomous universities. Opponents contend that this is largely a trompe-l'oeil and that only a small portion of the money will go to improving the conditions for teaching and research.

To fully appreciate the nature of the centre-right Sarkozy revolution, it is important to understand some of the nuances of French higher education. This somewhat idiosyncratic system, at once highly centralised and fragmentary, resolutely egalitarian and proudly elitist, has evolved over time in a piecemeal fashion to meet perceived social and economic needs.

The University of Paris, founded in the mid-12th century, was the first in a line to enjoy a high degree of autonomy from the state. But that changed with the centralised Napoleonic administrative reforms of the late 18th century which set the mould for the contemporary system with its two distinctive tiers.

A network of 84 public universities, at which admission is open for any school leaver with a baccalaureate, runs outside a network of grandes écoles. The two run on separate tracks, one above the other, intersecting at several points like the correspondence junctures on a metro line.

About 10% of school leavers holding a baccalaureate are admitted to a network of preparatory schools offering a two-year curriculum towards entry to the grandes écoles, but applicants must first take part in a gruelling national examination.

The grandes écoles are typically focused on single fields such as civil and military engineering (Ecole Polytechnique), teaching and humanities (Ecole Normale Supérieure), business (Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales), administration (Ecole Nationale d'Administration), electronics and computing (Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Electronique, Informatique et Radiocommunications de Bordeaux), and many others.

There exist no grandes écoles for law, medicine or architecture. Engineering, on the other hand, is exclusive to the grandes écoles.

The triumvirate of Sarkozy, Fillon and Pécresse has called for greater co-operation between the open-access public system, the selective grandes écoles and écoles supériures, national research bodies and industry.

The process of research integration is already well advanced in the south of France: Hetzel claims French research excellence obeys a "heliocentric principle" and follows the sun.

The Aquitaine region around Bordeaux, for example, has developed competitive research clusters concentrating on phototonics, materials science, aeronautics and space research. The aim is to establish relationships between regional industry, research and education to promote economic activity in hi-tech fields. The University of Bordeaux is actively seeking international partners.

Benoist Apparu, Secretary of State for Urbanism in the Fillon government and rapporteur for the 2007 autonomy legislation, notes that French universities, as a direct consequence of the dual system, do not as a rule get the best students.

"The best 10% of an entire generation don't usually go to the university in its classic form but to the grandes écoles; and in these there is little research. So the best 10% of a generation are not in contact with a research culture."

Little by little, the French government is moving from a dual to a single system. During an interview in a cafe behind the French National Assembly, Apparu went on to explain how the nation-building programme at the end of World War II produced bodies such as CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) and Inserm (Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale).

These are research-only bodies. CNRS is the nation's biggest research organisation. "The main research activities are taken out of the university," Apparu explains. "And because the state has lacked confidence in the university, it has created many, many more universities."

The French system has many single focus universities dedicated to the humanities or to the hard sciences, a factor in the system's underperformance on indices of the world's top universities. Many French universities, in addition, were broken up and reconstituted after the events of May 1968.

Paris today has 34 higher education institutions. Dispersed and fragmented, the public universities have lacked the power to determine their own budgets, raise their own money, hire their own staff and approve their own courses. As a result, they have lacked leadership.

The key political objective for the government, Apparu insists, is the restoration of the university to the heart of the education and research system. This entails restoration of university autonomy and the transfer of power from the ministry to the campus level.

In one sense the reform agents and their opponents misunderstand each other completely: their values are incompatible. But in another they understand one another perfectly well.
For if Sarkozy has his way, French higher education will be more internationally competitive in hard sciences and patents, more productive, less dependent on the state, and tied more closely to the economy. His agenda is foreign to the French public service tradition, as many academics understand it.

The establishment of an independent higher education quality evaluation agency, Aeres, is regarded even within that organisation as almost un-French.

Says Anne Picard, Aeres Secretary-General: "Creating a body that doesn't have to answer to government is almost unheard of in France. This, along with the new autonomy laws, gives universities the possibility to hire their own teachers and staff.

"It's something that's very much a change of mentality. Before you had no autonomy and you had central control. This has been replaced by autonomy and regulation. But it's partnership regulation, not top-down regulation; it's the result of discussion and dialogue."

During an interview with a top-ranking French education official who declined to be named, I asked for an explanation of the key motivation for the reforms. There was only one, said this official from his office in the shadow of the Elyséee Palace: to align higher education more closely with the needs of the economy and society.

The Bastille of French higher education has been stormed by a diminutive president with a loathing for classics. Yet Sarkozy's success will depend on his ability to blend tradition and change into a system that is globally competitive yet uniquely French.

Bonne chance.

* Luke Slattery is editor of The Australian higher education section where this article first appeared.