Valérie Pécresse came to Harvard today and gave an impressive account of university reform in impeccable English. You can follow the proceedings via the liveblog transcript here. Given the number of people in the audience, I couldn't ask all of your questions, so I confined myself to asking about selection. Once the clusters are created, some will be "more excellent" than others. How will students be channeled to one rather than another? Her answer was somewhat evasive. Selection is going on now, she said, which is true, but the Grande École model of selection will not be viable in the cluster system, and the university selection (admit large numbers, flunk out large numbers after a couple of wasted years) is a poor use of resources. Much of her talk was focused on research and innovation in the sciences, which is fine, but does not address the problems of the humanities, as Prof. Muriel Rouyer pointed out. The minister fended off this question by blaming the victim: grant applications had been invited, and humanities departments either did not apply or submitted proposals that did not meet with the approval of the jury.
Still, the overall impression left by the talk was positive. She understands many of the system's problems and has a set of prioritized strategies for achieving reform in a highly contentious environment. One can disagree with many particulars of the program and still be compelled to admit that alternative proposals would be subject to similar criticisms. One suggestion that appealed to me was the reform of the khâgne-hypokhâgne system. Pécresse noted that 4,500 students competed for just 200 places in two Ecoles Normales Supérieures. This was extremely wasteful and led to "selection by failure," with damage to student self-esteem. A reform has opened new avenues to those who are not selected, however. After finishing the khâgne, they now have other options, including political studies and entry into university master's programs.
One thing is clear: Mme Pécresse is a minister of talent.