Sunday, November 11, 2007

On Private Financing of Universities

One of the issues student protesters have raised in connection with the Pécresse reforms is that of private financing. This is a complex question, which deserves more careful attention than I can give it in a brief blog post. It may nevertheless be worth mentioning explicitly some distinctions that the protesters seem to be neglecting.

First, there is a distinction to be made between sponsored research and voluntary gifts by individuals. Consider this article from Rue89. It reproduces a letter from Richard Descoings, the head of Sciences-Po, to alumni of that institution, asking for contributions and informing them of available tax deductions. The lead to the article suggests that this letter is likely to "throw oil on the fire" of student protest. Why? Is accepting contributions from individuals likely to influence what is taught at Sciences-Po? Is M. Descoings, who has tried (with his program of discrimination positive) to bring more minorities into the upper echelons of French administration and business to which Sciences-Po grants its graduates access, accused of wanting to increase inequalities in French society or merely of attempting to improve his own institution? Will denying private funding to Sciences-Po make it less prestigious than it has become with state financing? Will it allow lesser institutions to "catch up," as they have failed to do under the existing formula? Is it realistic to hope for "equality" among 80-some different universities across France if all of them attempt to emulate the Sciences-Po curriculum? Can one assemble the critical mass of top-flight scholars and talented students at that many universities in every field?

Second, there is the question of a different kind of private financing: sponsored research by industry. This pertains mainly to the sciences, although one can imagine certain firms sponsoring work in the humanities for reasons of prestige rather than direct economic interest. Does this imply a "take-over of campuses" by the MEDEF, as one of the slogans reported by Le Monde appears to suggest? Whenever money is taken from private sources, there are of course concerns about strings being attached. For that reason, in the United States, where many universities, including state universities, do sponsored research, there are mechanisms in place to reduce conflicts of interest. Furthermore, it is not necessarily true that sponsored research limits scientific work to areas of greatest immediate interest to industry. Take the work of Albert Fert, the recent French Nobel prizewinner in physics. His work on giant magnetoresistance could not have been carried out without the cooperation and financial contribution of Thomson-CSF; his seminal idea would have remained stillborn and unproven without the industrial capacity to fabricate the device needed to demonstrate it in practice. In other words, there are fields of science in which the kinds of ideas that can prove fruitful are restricted more by refusing cooperation with industry than by accepting it.

Finally, it is worth considering whether industrial sponsorship is more or less distorting than state sponsorship, which often equates to military sponsorship. If the ideas that are valued are those with military rather than commercial applicability, is society necessarily better off?

These few remarks only scratch the surface of the issues involved, but perhaps they are worth throwing into the hopper along with:

"Medef, Medef,
la fac n'est pas ton fief"


Anonymous said...

In addition to the bon sens in Art's post: It's always important to remember that strikers are often small minorities of the student body as a whole, and that large majorities of students are against the occupation of the facs. The media contribute a lot to fostering the impression that les masses are involved, as everyone knows. This or that contrary student may show up in a news report critical of shutting down a fac but it has little impact on a "general strike" situation. If the frustrated majority organized a few times against the demonstrators the all-too-facile contestataire leap to shut things down would no longer be so easy. But this rarely happens, for several obvious reasons.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comment, Ron. On this point, I've read that a "student leader," not further identified as to name or organization, has said that strike votes in the university should NOT be by secret ballot but rather in open general assembly--a procedure not designed to foster the most deliberate of choices.

Anonymous said...

Arthur, a rational analysis of the values of sponsoring is always welcome but unfortunately it has no place in the present confrontation , as you have noticed for yourself.

The radical students are not accessible to this kind of arguments. The hardcore of protesters is composed of elements from the various trotskyst movements active in France, either under their own name ( LCR, LO, PT, JCR, Lambertistes, etc..) or under the "faux-nez" of organizations and "coordinations " created for the occasion."Entrisme" has always been a favorite tactic of these movements : infiltrate clandestine militants in organizations and subvert them from the inside. cf: Jospin who was encouraged to join ENA by his mentors.

For them business is the devil.Period. It has no place in universities, or anywhere else for that matter. Many of them are "long term" students in subjects like sociology, a darling matter of French universities since 1968. There is litle prospect of employement for a sociology student, except for professor of sociology, which leaves them plenty of time to "semer la m..."

And of course they are helped by the general anti-business bias spread in the general public by the media who, when they report business news, love to write about "patrons-voyous", and not much else.

Anonymous said...

Further proof of the political character of this movement can be seen in the fact that the so called "sell out of university values to big business" is hardly mentioned anymore by the self-proclaimed leaders of the movement.

Their main slogan now is " united resistance of the workers against government agressions", agression meaning for instance the reform of special pension regimes.

More or less the same slogan favored by SUD, the extremist union, also trotskist infiltrated, pushing for unlimited strikes.

This leaves UNEF, the largest student union and controled by the Socialists, in a difficult position. They do not want to encourage a minority extremist movement. At the same time, they do not dare to oppose it directly and are afraid to be marginalized should the movement really catch on.

Unknown said...

Alain Q.,
Thanks for your comments. Yes, of course, I have my suspicions, as you do, about the influences at work here, but I hesitate to assert my suspicions as fact, given my distance from the events and lack of firsthand information. I appreciate your observations and hope to hear from others closer to the scene.

Anonymous said...

I think it is undeniable that Trotskyste and other radical elements play a leading role in the student/protest movement, but I don't think the issue can be boiled down to Trotskyste plots and manipulation. If the movement builds up some momentum and students show up in large numbers in the streets, I don't think it is simply because they are manipulated and/or particularly sensitive to anti-business claims. Whether students are right or wrong, the claim that the reform will necessarily improve the students' condition and life chances still has be supported by some evidence. Private funding can be positive but not necessarily so. So instead of holding a contemptuous gaze on students and claiming that they are irrational, as Alain Q. does (in a tone reminiscent of Gaullists in 1968), I think it would be more constructive to take their concerns seriously and work with them (all the more if, as Ron Tiersky contends in the first reaction above, the majority of students is way more moderate than Trotskyste leaders).

Anonymous said...


"But this rarely happens, for several obvious reasons."

And the reason is... cowardice of the French Media. Much in the same way they ahve manifested their cowardice towards the French executive over the years. Who will ever forget G. Marchais to JP Elkabbach on election eve in France May 1981 after the socialist had won. Nice democracy here.

The media contributes to the environment of fear which the unions and gaucho students love to perpetuate because press is on the left in France even if some call themselves "conservative". I love to watch how for example the student protesters read the riot act to the press as the press lay prostrate in front of them microphones outstretched. Definitely not surprising here.

No no can't let the general public know that there is a whole world of those out there that DOES NOT support this kind of insurrection. The imagery would be too strong.

It's la Pensée Unique!

We rarely hear about the fed up commuter who goes ballistic because of these strikes.

Marcos Ancelovici

"Private funding can be positive but not necessarily so."

How much longer can the public in France at such a level subsidize the University which has a 40% dropout rate in the first year.

10 years to renovate Jussieu and still counting with use of public funds. There are no public funds!

I once answered someone who was the President of some organization in France concerning zero tolerance. He wrote back wanting to set up a meeting to which I refused telling him politely that I couldn't change centuries of French behavior against this new idea of zero tolerance and that he would be better off contacting his elected representative.

The moral is that as long as the French consider themselves systematically to be victims nothing will change.

I really do wish Mr. Sarkozy the best of luck with his reforms