Saturday, June 2, 2007

University Reform

The Fillon government has begun to move on reform of the universities. Once again the magic words "autonomy" and "selection" are heard. The high failure rate in the premier cycle is said to be a national plague. French universities are a disgrace, far below world standards. No French university ranks in the top 50 in this or that ranking. Et cetera. One has heard it all before.

Count me as a great skeptic when it comes to educational reform, particularly educational reform imposed from the top down by governments. The French often point to the American university model (une fois n'est pas coutume). But as Louis Menand pointed out in a recent New Yorker article, not everyone goes to Harvard; not every university is Princeton; fifty percent of those who attend some college don't graduate (our own premier cycle problem goes disguised because it has no name); and of those who do graduate, 22 percent take degrees in business, 8 percent in education, 5 percent in the health care professions. "There are more bachelor’s degrees awarded every year in Parks, Recreation, Leisure, and Fitness Studies than in all foreign languages and literatures combined."

In educational reform, baby steps should precede great strides. Autonomisation of the universities may facilitate more experimentation, which would be good. I suspect that the innovations that will make a difference a decade or two decades from now are already under way. Take the teaching of Chinese in France. Numerous initiatives have been taken, including this one. The government can give financial support, but ideas about what is useful probably come more often from elsewhere.

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