A decade of reforms under three presidents rolls on

Major university reforms launched by Nicolas Sarkozy after his election as president in 2007 changed the higher education landscape in France for the first time in more than 20 years.

Sarkozy had promised during his campaign that university reform would be a priority, in line with his determination to reduce state intervention and encourage initiative, and to make French universities internationally competitive. In the Shanghai university rankings at the time the highest-ranked French institution was placed 40th.

The previous university reorganisation had taken place following the nationwide student revolt in May 1968, which led to the restructuring and democratisation of the system, completed by the 1984 Savary law.

In August 2007, less than three months after Sarkozy’s election, the national assembly approved the Universities Freedom and Responsibility (LRU) law, giving university presidents greater authority and the universities control over matters including budgets, recruitment and pay, which had previously been under strict state control. The process of progressively granting autonomy to France’s 85 universities took place over the next few years.

The reforms were piloted by Valérie Pécresse, Sarkozy’s minister for higher education and research. While they were welcomed by the Conference of University Presidents, unions representing lecturers and students protested that the legislation was adopted without adequate consultation. Opponents feared ‘privatisation’ of universities, higher fees, selection, domination by business and competition between establishments leading to increased inequalities.

Operation Campus was also launched in 2007, aimed at making French universities internationally competitive, with increased funding awarded to a selected few partnerships of higher education and research institutions, and with involvement of the private sector. Through public-private partnerships private companies would build and maintain the privileged campuses with the state paying them ‘rent’.

Elite clusters

Pôles de recherche et d’enseignement supérieur were created, mega-campuses of research and higher education merging in unprecedented alliances the elite, selective grandes écoles, the non-selective universities and the big research organisations such as the CNRS (the multi-disciplinary National Centre for Scientific Research) and the health and medical research institute INSERM.

Initiatives d’Excellence (IDEX) were introduced in 2009 under Sarkozy’s PIA programme for future investments. They continued under the socialist government of François Hollande, elected in 2012, and now under the centrist government of President Emmanuel Macron.

The ambition is for these elite clusters, endowed with vastly increased funding, to become high-ranking, internationally competitive centres of higher education and research.

The structure of Pécresse’s reform – university autonomy, clusters of institutions with international aspirations – broadly continues, though under the socialists the stress on ‘competition’ was switched by the minister Geneviève Fioraso in favour of greater ‘cooperation’ between institutions.

Fioraso retained Operation Campus in 2012, but removed future private sector involvement. Five years after its launch the project had become bogged down, with “no stone laid, no building permit registered”, she observed.

As for the future, like his predecessors Macron, who was elected in May 2017, promised priority for higher education and research, and increased the budget.

In March he announced a €1.5 billion (US$1.8 billion) plan for France to become a world leader in artificial intelligence, adopting recommendations made in a report by mathematician and member of parliament Cédric Villani, which envisages setting up networks of specialised interdisciplinary research centres.

Fréderique Vidal, minister for higher education, research and innovation and former president of the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, has already launched her new plan for students, which aims to cut the high first-year failure rate and increase the number of places for oversubscribed courses.

Student protests

But many students are already protesting against its new enrolment process, Parcoursup, which they claim introduces selection – a strong taboo for students.

Trouble started on 22 March at the Paul Valéry University of Montpellier between students who wanted to close the university in protest against Parcoursup and those who wanted to keep it open. An occupation was violently evacuated in what reports described as a “military-style operation” by “hooded men”; and the university dean and a lecturer were accused of complicity in the violence, were suspended and placed under legal supervision.

Last week disruption had spread to Bordeaux, Toulouse, Paris-Tolbiac, Rouen, Nantes, Nancy and Aix-Marseille, among other universities.

Meanwhile, although the project has been retained, completion of the flagship IDEX University of Paris-Saclay, originally planned as a cluster of 18 institutions including the elite business school HEC Paris, the École Polytechnique and the University of Paris-Sud, has been postponed for two-and-a-half years after disagreements between institutions over its strategy and structure.

Jane Marshall is University World News’ correspondent in Paris, France.