Nicolas Sarkozy has made higher education reform one of the main issues in his early presidency. In general, the French universities are underfunded and inefficient. Higher education is free (apart from a small registration fee) and funded almost totally by taxpayers money. Universities are state agencies, staff are civil servants and institutional autonomy is lacking. Unsurprisingly, autonomy is the key word of the reforms announced by Sarkozy and Valérie Pécresse, the higher-education minister.
She clarified here autonomy plans in the Economist:
“Each university’s governing body will shrink from 60 to 20-30. University presidents will be allowed to spend their budgets as they wish, including in higher pay to recruit or retain star professors. They will be able to offer jobs more quickly: the creaking central calendar now means it can take over a year to finalise an offer, by which time good candidates have gone abroad. Universities will be permitted to raise private money; students to enrol anywhere. For the first time, universities will own and manage their own property. In exchange universities will share an extra €5 billion over the five years to 2012.”
Indeed, revolutionary changes for the French universities. Yet, the Economist would have preferred to see more radical changes. They point to two critical elements that are missing in the plans:
First, tuition fees. This of course is a sensitive issue in France (and some other European countries) where higher education is seen as a right, not a privilege. According to the students, “the university is a public service so the state must pay.” Alas, no plans for fees. Given the strains on France’s public finances, and ambitious plans for better campus facilities, this looks unsustainable in the long run.
The second gap is selection. An early version of Pécresse’s law – which allowed universities to select students at entry for masters’ degrees – was considered so controversial that it was quietly dropped. The more pressing issue of student selection at undergraduate entry was never even put on the table. As the Economist describes it, the system relies mainly on selection through failure:
“Anybody who passes the school-leaving baccalauréat exam can enroll at university. Yet roughly half of those who do drop out later. Unsurprisingly, lecturers are half-hearted about teaching in overcrowded amphitheaters filled with half-motivated psychology and sociology students. It is a vast waste of time and resources.”
Clearly, university reform in France is a delicate issue. If you go one step to far, the whole student community assembles and before you know it, old times are back again. It’s about time that the French students acknowledge that they are the ones loosing out if reforms are not taken soon. Luckily there are some that are able to see this. Let’s hope others follow.