Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Universities

A little more information has begun to emerge about what university students are protesting in various places across France. The central grievance seems to be the principle of university budgetary autonomy, and in particular the possibility that individual universities will seek to raise private funds to augment whatever money they receive from the state. Students fear that this will ultimately lead to privatization of the universities and increased inequality. The concern is not unfounded, but the government thought it had won acceptance of this point in negotiations with the student unions several months ago. So Valérie Pécresse's consternation is comprehensible.

On the substance of the issue, I think there is good reason to be concerned about the possible distortion of educational priorities by the injection of private funds. Nevertheless, competition and choice can be useful stimuli. The goal should be to allow students of equal talent an equal opportunity to choose among competing universities. To insist on equality among universities is to ensure mediocrity, and the existence of Grandes Écoles belies the egalitarian discourse in any case.

Tactically, Bruno Julliard's UNEF seems to have been outmaneuvered by the Collectif Contre l'Autonomie des Universités (CCAU), a new group apparently influenced by the extreme left, which is also a force in the more militant union protests against the special retirement regime reforms. The UNEF apparently joined the CCAU-led university protest yesterday, fearful of being left behind though dubious about the mobilizing issue. In short, it appears that there is an effort afoot to bring student and worker discontent together over the next few weeks in the hope of derailing Sarkozy, just as Juppé was derailed in 1995. How Sarko handles this confrontation will be an important test. If he gets past these next few weeks without conceding too much, he will have consolidated his presidency.

I would be particularly interested in hearing from readers who know anything about the CCAU and its leadership, affiliation with other organizations and parties, etc.

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