FRANCE: Election year - Change or more of the same?

Presidential and general elections take place in France this year. Candidates have yet to publish their policies for higher education and research until 2017, but Nicholas Sarkozy will be judged on his promise to ensure France's top universities compete with the world's best.

For Sarkozy, 2012 marks not only the completion of his first (or only?) term as president of France, but also the deadline he set five years ago for radically transforming the higher education and research system and fulfilling his ambition for at least 10 French centres of excellence to rank among the world's top universities.

During his campaign leading up to the 2007 presidential election, Sarkozy promised priority for higher education and research to equip the country for the "worldwide battle for intelligence".

In the five years under his presidency, French universities would achieve "real autonomy" over their budgets, human resources, management of their buildings and other responsibilities that were at the time under tight state control.

Sarkozy undertook to increase funding for higher education by EUR5 billion (US$6.5 billion), and for research and innovation by EUR4 billion, during his mandate.

He would tackle the nation's poor showing in international rankings, which has always rankled in a country that prides itself on its intellectual and scientific prowess. France would boast internationally competitive institutions high in the charts. Sarkozy promised billions of euro of extra funding for a select few institutions that showed the greatest chance of success.

In spite of resistance from lecturers' and researchers' unions Valérie Pécresse, minister for higher education and research for four years, piloted through the reforms, until she was replaced last summer in a reshuffle by Laurent Wauquiez.

As a result, after five years of Sarkozy's administration, the higher education landscape of France has changed profoundly.

The objectives of the loi relative aux libertés et responsabilités des universités (LRU), the law transferring autonomy to universities, are almost accomplished. A total of 73 universities, nearly 90%, have already become autonomous and the rest must follow suit by August.

However, a recent report by the European University Association (EUA), University Autonomy in Europe II - The scorecard revealed that the French state still plays a major role, allowing its universities less freedom than many other European countries.

In its comparison of 28 countries, the EUA classified higher education systems in four areas, in all of which France scored only medium-low or low: organisational autonomy (in which France was ranked 16th), financial autonomy (22nd), staffing autonomy (27th) and academic autonomy (28th).

Universities are having to adapt to a new competitive approach that has replaced the egalitarian ethos that used to characterise the French university system. Universities must now submit bids for projects to gain greater shares of public investment.

Under Opération Campus, 12 pôles de recherche et enseignement supérieur (PRES) - regional clusters of universities, grandes écoles and research institutions - were selected to become centres of excellence, sharing EUR5 billion of extra funding. Nine other alliances were designated 'campuses of promise' and promised increased state support.

The grouping of several institutions together, as in the PRES, is aimed at overcoming one of the supposed reasons for France's mediocre performance in world rankings.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), for example, takes the size of institutions into consideration, which does not suit France's dispersed higher education system, within which Paris has 17 universities, Bordeaux four, and several other towns have more than one each.

Mergers are another development. The three Strasbourg universities became one institution at the beginning of 2009; and on 1 January the University of Aix-Marseille, also previously three universities, became the largest university in France with 70,000 students, more than 7,500 staff and a budget of EUR650 million.

As another part of its plan to create internationally competitive centres of higher education and research, the government launched Investissements d'Avenir (Investments of the Future), to finance strategic higher education and research projects with EUR22 billion from a EUR35 billion national loan set up in 2009.

But some institutions are finding that competitive autonomy is not so straightforward.

Several - the exact number is unclear - are entering the new year with financial problems, after posting deficits for two years running. Their budgetary financial management has been taken over by their education authority; and the ministry and the CPU, the body representing university presidents, have set up a 'committee of peers' to help these universities overcome their financial difficulties.

Soon after she became minister in 2007, Pécresse announced that one of her policy aims was to have two French universities in the top 20 world rankings by 2012, and 10 in the top 100.

There is still some way to go. In the latest ARWU rankings, in 2011, France had just three entries in the top 100, fewer than in 2007 when there were four. The most highly ranked, the University of Paris-Sud, was placed 40th. In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the Paris Ecole Normale Supérieure, in 59th place, was the highest ranked of the three French institutions in the leading 100.

It will not be known until after the elections whether Sarkozy's ambition to see France triumph in the 2012 university rankings will be realised. But the world will know on 6 May whether he will still be in charge and able to oversee the future of the nation's higher education for another five years.

Related links
EUROPE: Austerity threatens autonomy, EUA warns
FRANCE: New minister will continue reforms