Thursday, May 14, 2009

The University Reforms

I talked to a lot of professors in Grenoble, but not many students, so my impression of the status of the university reform and the strike is incomplete. The general feeling seems to be one of despair. Many had hoped that the reforms would succeed in one way or another, because something needs to be done, but no one is happy with the way things have gone. Many think the government blundered badly. Sarkozy's insulting speech was a disaster: even people relatively well-disposed to giving more power to university presidents found the president's crude criticisms of the professoriate difficult to swallow. An equal number find fault with the many ambiguities in the texts, the lack of details about evaluation procedures, etc. There is a widespread belief that the universities are going to be left to wither, with all serious effort directed to the Grandes Écoles.

One of the most interesting panels in Grenoble featured educational sociologist Christian Baudelot, who presented the results of his study of the PISA surveys comparing educational systems in a range of countries (see his Elitisme républicain, written with Roger Establet). His belief is that the countries that do best do a good job of educating everyone to a decent level of competence. France does well by the best students and very badly by those at the bottom of the distribution. For Baudelot, it is scandalous that the number of students receiving the bac has multiplied 70-fold over the last century while the number of students admitted by Polytechnique has only doubled. There should be a push, he thinks, to expand the Grandes Écoles, but this is strongly resisted by those whose elite status stems from their exclusive educational credentials.

Today's Monde has a petition signed by a number of intellectuals that advocates a sweeping reform of the entire higher educational system.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Baudelot’s book seems quite interesting. Taking his argument further, I think one can see an application of “elitist republicanism” in most other parts of higher education, such as the “concours” model with the typical scenario being that there is a mass of candidates but only a few spots available.

When it comes to the recruitment of university teachers – the maître de conferences (assistant professors), this model produces results which are similar to those in the USA which is more explicitly a market-based, supply/demand, model.

In the US, there is an ever-increasing pool of PhD.s competing for an ever-shrinking pool of permanent, full-time faculty positions (tenure-track is an even more rare gem). Big labor supply + few job offers = low pay.

Ceteris paribus, the humanities departments at French universities also need to justify their existence & budget allocations by the numbers of students in their Master’s and Doctoral programs. In general, there’s no real selection to get into these programs. For universities, these graduate students are useful because they provide a source of cheap labor when they work as ATERs or moniteurs.
But job prospects are just as dismal for French humanities PhD’s as they are for their American cohorts. And that’s where the concours model kicks in because the concours to get a maitre de conference job is about as selective as getting into a grande école – out of the several thousands of candidates this year, only around 10 to 15% will get a job. When you consider that first dibs generally go to those candidates whose background include either Normale Sup’, Sciences Po, or EHESS, those with a PhD from a university are hurting big time.

Later on, they end up having difficulty in translating their humanities degree to get a job in the private sector, and if they do, its likely to be job that doesn’t pay well for what one would expect for their “Bac + 8, etc.” level.

So, if there is one consequence of the elite republican “concours” model, its that of creating legions of exceptionally well-educated temp workers. There are even likely to be guichetiers who not only read la Princesse de Clèves, but wrote their thesis on it.