Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Reforming the University

Sarkozy and Pécresse--I feel for them, I really do. Having witnessed attempts to reform one university at a time, I would not wish the ordeal of reforming 34 at once on anyone. Yet reform is necessary. Everyone knows that. Everyone has known it for 50 years. Et pourtant ...

Initial signs are that things are not going well. The minister herself is only "reasonably optimistic" about the chance of success. The president has already been obliged to step in and lend her a hand, postponing discussion of the bill by the Council of Ministers for at least a week. Bruno Julliard, the head of the national student union UNEF, who earned his arms as a leader of the anti-CPE demonstrations, is back in front of the cameras and micros and in the press, proclaiming the reform "totally unacceptable" and raising the prospect of a rentrée chaude or even--a thing most unusual for France--a "long hot summer" of demonstrations by students so incensed at the idea of selection to master's programs that they will consider interrupting their vacations to take to the streets. (As I write these words, blocks away from Harvard University, which this year rejected 93 percent of its applicants for undergraduate education, I am only too aware of the abyss that separates the American from its sister republic across the sea.) And yet--remarkable thing--Julliard is in favor of giving more power to university presidents as opposed to faculties, in order to "battle against corporatism and the mandarinate." His other bêtes noires include "the competitive Anglo-Saxon model, profoundly inegalitarian and elitist." Yet he also opposes the opt-out provision, which would allow individual universities to decline the opportunity to manage their budgets autonomously, on the grounds that this would lead to the channeling of the bulk of funds to a "handful of elite universities."

If M. Julliard is going to be hard to satisfy, the university presidents of the CPU (Conference of University Presidents) are also reticent. Indeed, it was their vote against the proposed bill--19 opposed, 12 for, 3 abstentions--that obliged Sarkozy to step in. As with university presidents everywhere, their chief concern is money: which will get it, which won't. Unlike M. Julliard, they are under no illusion that there is anything profoundly egalitarian and anti-elitist about the current system. What guarantees they want from the state is less clear, but one can easily imagine that the smaller and weaker institutions fear starvation of funds and ultimate extinction, while the stronger ones want assurances that with autonomy will come the necessary funds to compete, not just domestically but internationally, for the best faculty, up-to-date laboratories, libraries, and all the rest. Sarkozy, in his televised interview on TF1, waxed lyrical about the French universities of the future, able to rival the best in the world, with verdant campuses and well-stocked libraries and abundant staff and modern facilities, but he seemed to suggest that all that would be required to achieve this goal was the requisite will and not an endowment on the order of $28 billion per institution (to take Harvard's endowment as a touchstone).

Also untouched by the current reform is the separate but related issue of reform of research. A complete revamping of the CNRS is under discussion. Instead of a collection of labos, as at present, the CNRS would become a mere funding agency, akin to the National Science Foundation in the US. Personnel would be transferred to the faculties and perhaps--mirabile dictu!--even required to teach. This would affect the universities more profoundly than the structural reforms now under discussion, but the government's approach is to fix the administrative contours first before tackling the thorny personnel issues. Another unresolved question is the perennial one of the relation of the Grandes Ecoles to the universities. The elitism that M. Julliard deplores is so profoundly a part of the existing two-track system that he doesn't even mention it. But even Sarkozy recognizes that Rome wasn't built in a day, and nothing can be built or unbuilt in France against the opposition of an aroused phalanx of anciens élèves of Polytechnique and Normale Sup--an even more frightening prospect than a Boul' Mich' packed with followers of M. Julliard.

For a succinct summary of the primary points of the reform, see here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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