New state secretary for higher education after hiatus

Thierry Mandon has been appointed as the new state secretary for higher education and research. He takes over at a time of austerity and low morale among the university community, after a period of three months during which the post was vacant.

Meanwhile the French Academy of Sciences has issued a warning over funding cuts to public research, which it claims are lowering France’s international competitiveness and discouraging young researchers.

Mandon replaced Geneviève Fioraso, who resigned in March for health reasons. Following her departure, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the minister for education, higher education and research, has been in charge, but she has been preoccupied with schools, especially reform of lower secondary education.

Mandon (57) graduated from the prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques, known as Sciences Po, in 1987. He was founder and president of Genopole, leading French biocluster for biotechnologies and research in genomics and genetics, from 1998 to 2014; and a board member of the University of Paris-11, Paris-Sud.

He has held a number of elected local authority positions, including mayor of Ris-Orangis in the Essonne department from 1995 to 2012, where he was elected as a socialist député in 2012. A year ago he was appointed state secretary for state reform and simplification.

He has a good knowledge of the relevant finances, having been special rapporteur for higher education and student life on the Finance Commission of the National Assembly in 2013 and 2014.

Low morale

He takes over his new post at a time when higher education and research are undergoing a period of austerity and reorganisation, and morale is low – in spite of François Hollande’s promise when elected French president in 2012 that the sector would be his government’s priority.

A survey published in June by the online publication EducPros on morale of employees in higher education and research found there was a serious lack of confidence in the future and loss of motivation, with 70% of the 2,200 respondents “not enthusiastic for the future of their institution”, and with the prospect of “new economies on the horizon”.

“The new secretary of state… has much to do and will find it hard to win back university personnel,” said the Baromètre EducPros 2015.

The Conference of University Presidents, or CPU, said that, having been without a secretary of state for more than three months, the university community expected “concrete answers to its anxieties. The reductions in funds for investments and the debits from the money in the reserves of higher education institutions are worrying”.

Jean-Loup Salzmann, the CPU’s president, said: “The new state secretary will have to fight tooth and nail to advance the budget for higher education.”

Mandon also arrives as the higher education landscape is being radically transformed with groups of universities and other institutions merging, entering associations or forming ‘communities’.

The reform for most groupings is in its final stage but, EducPros found, it was an “institutional change which… remains rejected by a substantial number of employees”. Only a third of respondents to its Baromètre survey thought the new university organisation was a good thing. “Worse, 80% see it as a source of stress.”

Research funding

Meanwhile, a statement from the Academy of Sciences coinciding with Mandon’s appointment warned that the funding of public research was a matter of urgent concern.

The academy “considers the sharp decrease in basic funding of public research laboratories allocated by organisations and universities no longer allows many quality teams to work in the material conditions that let them face up to international competition”.

The substantial drop in allocations made by the French National Research Agency had “deprived researchers of funding for original research stemming from basic scientific research, catalysts for future applications, leading to a decrease in technological and industrial innovations”, it said.

“The insistence on so-called ‘societal’ research too often encourages research themes that are ‘fashionable’ or not relevant at a scientific level, leaving many high quality teams left out of any funding.”

It said measures to simplify management of research had not been introduced, but “the stacking up of research structures has contributed to increasing the complexity of our research system at the same time as management costs”.

The academy also expressed grave concern over the “difficult period young researchers go through between the doctorate and their appointment to a research organisation, increasingly leading brilliant individuals to give up research, or even leave the country”.