Audit condemns management at elite Paris institute

The financial management of the elite Institute of Political Studies in Paris has been strongly criticised in an official report that found evidence of exorbitant bonuses, absence of controls and waste of public funds during the directorship of Richard Descoings, who died in April.

The 210-page provisional report of the Cour des Comptes (state auditor) on the institute known as Sciences Po for the period 2005-11 was obtained by Le Monde newspaper, which published its conclusions last week.

The report revealed a chaotic management that consisted more of “little deals between friends than a serious administration of public funds”, said the paper.

The Cour des Comptes called for immediate reform of Sciences Po, reported Le Monde. It said Higher Education and Research Minister Geneviève Fioraso had told the institute’s leadership to halt the appointment procedure for Descoings’ successor until publication of the definitive report in November.

Among the report’s findings were:
  • • Top managers’ remuneration was excessive. The gross annual pay of the institute’s head rose by 60.4% between 2005 and 2011, to €537,246.75 (US$692,330) in 2010 (though it fell to €505,806.29 the following year). By comparison, annual pay for the president of an equivalent higher education institution was €160,095.61 in 2011.

    The Cour des Comptes also criticised the system of bonuses practised at Sciences Po – the bonus of Jean-Claude Casanova, president of the institute’s governing foundation, had risen from €16,500 to €36,000 between 2007 and 2010.

  • • The Cour criticised lack of consultation with the governing board, and noted that the methods of payment for the two men did “not respect the rules laid down by the general tax code”.

  • • There was similar confusion over lecturers’ conditions of employment and pay, and bonuses paid to ‘star’ teachers and to executives, reported Le Monde. Rules differed from those in universities and varied from one lecturer to another.

    Short-term contract staff accounted for 20% of the wage bill and 93% of the teaching hours. The Cour calculated that, overall, [tenured] lecturers carried out “30% of their service” but were “paid 100%”.

  • • The statute of Sciences Po, a hybrid of private foundation and public establishment, was described by the Cour as no longer appropriate; this, it said, had led to chaos in handling public money, coordination difficulties and legal uncertainties, and had made it impossible to manage the overall wages bill.

  • • Another criticism was ‘expensive’ students. “The average cost of a student is more than €3,000 above that of a student at the University of Paris-Dauphine,” noted the Cour des Comptes. The Ministry of Higher Education paid €300 of the excess sum for each student, but families also had to contribute, paying on average fees of more than €3,000 at Sciences Po compared with €400 at Dauphine.

  • • The Cour also condemned risky management, citing loans the institute had taken out, one of which it classified as “speculative and dangerous”; in future the foundation should seek endorsement from the Ministry of Economy, it said.

  • • And the report criticised the lack of state control over the institute. State funding had risen by a third in five years to a total of €63.3 million in 2010; since this was the foundation’s principal source of finance, this lack appeared to be “especially faulty”, said the Cour.
Replying to Le Monde, Sciences Po admitted the Cour des Comptes report had made “well-founded remarks, justified criticisms” but also “questionable assertions, comments and judgements”.

The institute had undertaken several immediate commitments, reported Le Monde, including on managerial salaries and bonuses. The next director would be paid the same as a university president.

The foundation’s administrator would receive remuneration that was part fixed and part according to results obtained, but limited to maximum pay levels of French higher-senior public service or the leaders of state companies. The variable part would not exceed 25% of the fixed salary.

Regulations governing the successor of Richard Descoings would be tighter, meetings of the foundation more frequent and all financial and budgetary operations more strictly controlled.

But the institute did not accept that its statute was out of date. “This system constitutes the fundamental condition for respecting the autonomy desired by the public authorities since its creation in 1945,” it told Le Monde.

It also disagreed that student costs were unreasonably high, which it said were largely due to the expense of international exchanges. It denied that the comparison with Dauphine was valid.

Minister Fioraso noted that the Cour des Comptes report was provisional and said she would await “the definitive observations to make an assessment on the operations of this institution whose reputation is a leading asset for French higher education”.

* Richard Descoings was director of Sciences Po from 1996 and had been elected to serve a fourth term in 2011.

During his 16 years as head of
Sciences Po he radically transformed the institution by introducing controversial reforms that increased the proportion of foreign students to 40%, opened access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds through partnerships with schools in deprived areas, means-tested fees so the poorest paid nothing though the wealthiest paid thousands of euros, and created six provincial offshoots.

He was found dead on 3 April in New York, where he was due to attend a United Nations meeting for university heads.