French President Sarkozy’s plans for reforming the French economy and the French public sector appears to cause some resistance. From opera employees to fishermen, train drivers, civil servants and postmen, there is hardly a sector that does not complain of some ‘right’ being eroded. Transport workers are striking over government plans to do away with special retirement privileges; Civil servants will go on strike over a plan to streamline the bureaucracy; Judges and court clerks plan a protest against reforms to the court system; Air France cabin crew have threatened to resume a strike in time for the Christmas season…
In this setting, it won’t be a surprise that the students are taking it to the streets as well, to protest against the French university reforms and the new university law. The new law injects 1 billion euros into higher education, grants universities more freedom to choose their own students and opens the way for some private sector financing to boost the funding of universities. The reforms sparked the fear of privatisation and too much involvement of business in academic maters. Juliette Griffond of the French national student union explained why students are afraid of the reforms:
We are not against business funding, but against the business sector having decision-making powers regarding university curricula and diplomas. Just imagine if there is a diploma that corresponds to one single enterprise and job and then that enterprise shuts down. The employee and his diploma would have no value after that.
Asked whether the current diplomas correspond to the needs of business and whether students can easily find a job after graduation, she replied:
the current unemployment rates in France do not depend on the quality of university education and the diplomas students have. University autonomy will not improve education, as the quality of education is more a question of budget and reform of the university pedagogy.
Current university education gives young graduates a certain ‘package’ of qualifications and capacities, after which each enterprise needs to train the young graduates internally to correspond to the enterprise’s specific needs. It is important that university education is not too professionalised and doesn’t simply allow one profession afterwards. Nowadays, people change job frequently and need to be able to adapt to change.
I would think that the universities in France also feel the need to adapt to change, and that more autonomy will be a crucial prerequisite for this. I respect the engagement of students and their concerns about the future of French higher education, but student unions might also think a bit more about adapting to the new circumstances themselves and embrace change when change is necessary.