Tuesday, May 19, 2009


The other day a group of academics published a manifesto in Le Monde concerning the university reform and the reasons for the impasse. It is an interesting document. Among the most important points is this observation:

Une des principales raisons du marasme de l'Université française est qu'elle se trouve en situation de concurrence déloyale avec tout le reste du système d'enseignement supérieur (classes préparatoires et de BTS, IUT, écoles de tous types et de tous niveaux), toutes institutions en général mieux dotées per capita et davantage maîtresses du recrutement de leur public.

On touche là à un des non-dits récurrents de toutes les réformes qui se sont succédé en France. Cette situation est d'autant plus délétère que la gestion de l'enseignement supérieur dans son ensemble dépend d'autorités ministérielles et administratives distinctes (l'enseignement secondaire pour les classes préparatoires et les STS, les ministères sectoriels pour les écoles professionnelles diverses), voire échappe à tout contrôle politique. Imagine-t-on un ministère de la santé qui n'ait que la tutelle des hôpitaux publics !

Valérie Pécresse responded to this manifesto yesterday. She made a point of noting "convergences" between the government's position and that of the refondateurs and seemed to indicate that she was prepared for "constructive" dialogue. But consider her response to the point raised above:

L'université, c'est vrai, subit durement la concurrence de filières de formation et d'écoles sélectives. Alors est-ce une faiblesse irrémédiable pour notre service public d'enseignement supérieur ? Je ne le crois pas. C'est notre héritage. A nous de savoir en faire une force. Construire, pour les étudiants, des passerelles entre écoles et universités, permettre aux universités de mettre en place des classes préparatoires en leur sein, développer les cohabilitations de diplômes, créer des écoles doctorales communes : voilà ce que les universités et les écoles sont en train de bâtir, voilà ce que je souhaite et ce que j'encourage.

In the courts this would be called a "nonresponsive" answer. It is a good example, I think, of why the government's interlocutors claim that there is no dialogue while the government insists, or pretends, that there is.

Today, three of the refondateurs reject the notion of "convergence" as a transparent attempt at récupération:

Ces trois universitaires, impliqués dans le mouvement et désireux que le problème de l'université soit posé autrement dans la société, ajoutent que "pour dissiper tout équivoque, comptant parmi les initiateurs de ce manifeste, nous croyons pouvoir dire au minimum qu'il n'aurait pas recueilli 3 500 signatures à ce jour si nos collègues s'étaient aperçus de telles convergences


kirkmc said...

"concurrence déloyale avec tout le reste du système d'enseignement supérieur..."

That is such a pathetic comment. There is no way that French universities could do what American universities do: offer a full range of courses that covers everything from, say, technical subjects to the humanities. Calling that concurrence déloyale is the usual way the French have of saying that they don't like something, but have no real way to complain about it.

I regret the French system in a way: my son will most likely be going to an IUT next year - a public IUT - and it would have been so much better for him to be in a real university where he could take courses beyond his speciality.


MYOS said...

Kirk, what is paradoxal is that IUTs DO offer non-specialized courses - foreign languages, some social sciences, even in many cases "language arts and communication"!
They do require heavier schedule than the universities, though - they have many more lecturers/professors and smaller classes so they can afford to.
Sometimes I think that asking French universities to compete in anything is akin to asking someone who had a bowl of gruel as sole nourishment for the day and is without shoes, to run against someone who is well-fed, trained, and own as many professional Nike/adidas/brand running shoes as they wish.
I don't know how Art perceived it while in Grenoble, but whenever I see a Université I see something gray, overcrowded, and that just looks "famished".
(As for overcrowded: didn't the US make space for its GIBill students who came in droves? Why can't France do the same? It's as if they decided students should go to college.... but forgot to build the colleges.)

Anonymous said...

The 29 petitioners underline a point which, to me, signifies a big change in the pedagogical approach which has typified French universities. that is, their 2nd & 3rd proposals redefine the reception and follow-up of students - the "encadrement". They’re proposing a better kind of "encradrement", and better means more money, more than the 700 million euros promised by Sarkozy.

As it stands now, students sort of float in and out the "fac" notching up credits, sometimes getting equivalences at other "facs", and never have any real connection or contact with their professors or even the school let alone their classmates. There is hardly ever anyone there to tell students: "this is good/ this is bad. You can do better", in other words, nobody is there who says "I care". This is what happens at the IUTs where there exists an encadrement to speak of. I've been told that those "têtes bien faites" who graduate from the grandes écoles got their heads “well done”, less so at X or HEC, etc. than at the classes préparatoires. These 2 years (equivalent of freshman & sophomore years at college) aren't just a dog-eat-dog grind, but also a time of solidarity and intellectual growing. Knowledge is transmitted from teacher to student notably because the students are in a kind of "encadrement" that is propitious for learning. Not for nothing, the IUTs and grandes écoles encourage a kind of school spirit & esprit de corps.

At universities, in the first two years, it’s totally different. Many students fall into a spiral of anomie, for lack of a better term. The experience of going to day of classes at university is like waiting in line at the post office, or going to the prefecture or any other bureaucratic “service public” housed in ugly concrete buildings peopled with fonctionnaires who’d rather be somewhere else.

One proposal from the petition I don’t agree with is that of placing all of higher education – both public & private, small & large schools - under the aegis of the Ministry of Higher Education. I can understand that the petitioners want to place the universities at the center of the higher education system – it’s by far the largest of all the other types. But following the dictum, “if it aien’t broke, don’t fix it”, I note that the other parts of the higher education, the IUTs, the STSs, classes prépa, business schools, private (Catholic) universities, etc. , well they’re doing quite well. And this without being run by National Education. Maybe that even explains their success. I’m drawn to wonder about what the petitioners are getting at – do they want universities to do as Microsoft did, ie take advantage of its market position to stifle out competition? Especially in light of the hysteria over recognizing the diplomas of Catholic institutions…sheesh!

Also, who really knows how to turn universities around? I don’t think anybody does. Nobody has “THE” magic plan, not even the 29 petitioners. Centralizing control, drawing up annuated plans, etc...all this leaves me very doubtful especially since an argument can be made that it was technocratic “theory” in the early 1970s that got French universities into the mess they’re in now. And here is where I think the LRU’s autonomy proviso is really important because whatever improvements come will be those gained from the process of trial and error, with various schools experimenting this or that program or innovation, which leads to emulation and finding what “works”. Cergy-Pontoise, Tours, Toulouse-Sabatier – these schools have taken the bull by the horns, innovated successfully and made a name for themselves both here and abroad. Its not just the Parisian & Lyonnais schools that stand to gain from autonomy…

Chris P.

Alex said...

The 29 petitioners have their analysis pretty close to right. It's the first time I've seen that since I've been teaching in France.

Of course they are looking at the situation from the point of view of the universities, rather than that of the Grandes Ecoles. So inevitably they want to see the situation of the universities improved.

The problem is that there are two competing higher education systems in France, and the Grandes Ecoles receive much more in the way of resources than the universities.

The anti-university line taken by Chris P. above is not surprising. Of course the individual university student does not get much individual tuition; the resources are simply not available.

My office has not been painted since 1972; my retiring colleague painted it himself when he was a graduate student. If I invite someone to speak at my seminar, I have to pay for their dinner myself.

As to why there are two systems so opposed, it goes back further than the 1970s, I think. Although I haven't studied French university history, I would say it originates in Napoleonic times, with the foundation of the Ecole Normale Supérieure. I suspect the professors of the Sorbonne so annoyed people in power that it was easier to avoid the resistance and found new institutions, rather than attempt to reform the existing ones.

But it is quite clear, as the petitioners say, that France can no longer afford two independent systems of Higher Education. They need to be fused together. Only in that way can some of the disparities be evened out. And more importantly, the unjustified absence of French institutions from world ratings, such as Shanghai, could be corrected.