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"