Friday, February 6, 2009

One American's View of the University Strike


A fellow American blogger is in France for a semester of study and takes a dim view of the university strike: "Evidently these days, $20,000 does not ensure that the service purchased will be delivered." The comment, which to some French ears may seem peremptorily and quintessentially American, does point to an important issue of incentives. When education is provided as a purely public good, there is a tendency for resources to be overused and undermaintained: the "tragedy of the commons" can be seen at work in many places in the French university system. When education becomes a costly private good offering the potential for substantial private gains, the system's "customers" demand more, and "providers" will compete among themselves to meet the demand. Neither incentive structure is without perverse effects, even leaving aside the question of equal access. Paying customers may demand football stadiums rather than chemistry laboratories. They may prefer showmen to scholars in the classroom.

That said, I think that the disgruntled customer quoted above is wrong to dismiss the concerns of his professor about his status as "the infantile whining of a middle aged man." Indeed, the strike itself is a learning opportunity perhaps more valuable than what would have been covered in the missed lecture. A careful reading of Olivier Beaud's explanation of the attitudes of teachers, to which I posted a link yesterday, can serve as a useful introduction to the "bureaucratic phenomenon" as it applies to the French university. Indeed, the issue is not that professors are exempt from "the standards faced by millions of private sector workers every day," by which Boz presumably means evaluation by hierarchical superiors. The question is rather a shift in the locus of evaluation, and whether that will produce a better or a worse result. It is also how the evaluations will be used to apportion responsibilities between research and what the ministerial document interestingly calls "service" (i.e., teaching). To be sure, there is no doubt a strong element of corporatist self-defense in the resistance to change, but there is also genuine disagreement about how best to meld the university's dual mission of advancing knowledge and providing a "service." The paying customer may have a right to expect prompt service in exchange for his fee, but the university is also a public good whose mission needs to be publicly debated if the balance between private gain and public benefit--another kind of "service"--is to be made right.

ADDENDUM: A professor defends the professoriate.