Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Billion Here, a Billion There

President Sarkozy announced yesterday that 11 billion euros from the Grand Emprunt will go to universities (4 billion of that in the form of unprecedented "endowments," fonds propres) and 1 billion to the digitization of French books (closing the door to Google's offer to do the job for free, but with strings attached).

That's a lot of money for education and culture, but in my view it's money well spent. In fact, it's absolutely the right thing to do. The university move will be controversial, because it means that Sarko is now putting money where his mouth was, calling for the creation of four "national champion" universities, to become "the best in the world," as the president modestly put it. To be sure, such virile language is more appropriate to the soccer field than to the campus, but Sarkozy is right to conclude that equality among universities is a fiction that not only cannot be sustained but has never been more than a thin veil over a squalid reality. Concentrating resources is, alas, a bitter necessity, and Sarkozy has made the right choice. Good consequences are sure to follow. So are protests and complaints. But as he has done in every other policy domain, Sarkozy has here made a strategic choice that will divide the opposition, win over some of its most ambitious members, and leave the losers scattered in helpless disarray. To bow to reality while at the same time routing the enemy is the essence of realpolitik, a game at which Sarkozy has proven to be very good indeed.

Of course in tinkering with the universities, there is always the possibility of setting off some uncontrollable student reaction. My guess, however, is that the failure of the resistance thus far to deflect Sarkozy from his course has left much of the rank-and-file dispirited and resigned to getting on with it.


satchmo said...

Public digitization will be an excellent project, I agree. As most readers here no doubt know, U.S. historical digitization is primarily in the hands of proprietary databases that charge unis extortionate subscription fees, such that ordinary citizens / readers do not have access to the archive.

I'll be looking forward to this.

Unknown said...

This is true of journal publishers, as Robert Darnton has proclaimed far and wide. Google's digitization plans are less clear. The company has made large numbers of out-of-copyright books available for free, for which I am grateful. But in so doing they have acquired, through agreements with publishers and libraries, the right to charge in the future for lots of texts that are currently under copyright. Whether their charges will be exorbitant or not, it is the open-ended nature of the commitment that has raised concerns. And the agreements do not protect against future changes of ownership and/or policy on Google's part. Even if today's owners are relatively public-spirited--and there is some evidence that they are--they are physical persons, while the corporation is a moral person that does not die. Trust, but verify: one of the few Reaganisms that I find it worthwhile to quote from time to time.

satchmo said...

Yes, with Google the devil is in the details. I consult Google books most days and find it a wonderful resource, but questions of future ownership and access are uncertain, and when we move from "historical" print matter pre-1920s across the line into currently copy-righted publications all of the questions become more complex. As you point out, even with the most benevolent of privatizers many problems are evident.

I would dearly love to see a well-managed public digitization scheme for everything from Gutenberg to the 1920s, in any case. That would be an incredible public good, probably for less than the price of an aircraft carrier. Utopian, I know.

kirkmc said...

While I think digitization is a Good Idea - because there are a lot of public domain French books I'd like to read - I'm not sure it's worth spending that kind of money on. Unless they're planning something with the breadth of what Google is doing, they could probably limit themselves to a much smaller undertaking.

Because, if they're planning to digitize books under copyright, they're going to have a hue and cry from authors and translators here in France. Count on it.

But, of course, they may just give up, as was the case with their search engine...

Unknown said...

Whatever happens, you have to give the "Google guys" credit for starting the ball rolling. It's hard to imagine Sarko ponying up a billion for this "public good" without Google's winged chariot at his back.

FrédéricLN said...

"That's a lot of money for education and culture, but in my view it's money well spent"

Assuming that what French education sector lacks, is concrete. I'm not sure of that, and French researchers aren't sure either.

I do NOT have a recent informed view about it (I worked on the topic, but ten years ago).

I'll just link to the "Sauvons la recherche" website, that strongly pleads against this project (if it is a gift for their sector, they are mad to do so). But I can't expertise the arguments.


MYOS said...

Another area related to higher education: apparently, most elite colleges don't have dorms for girls. They cite a male dorm that's been entirely renovated without a thought for women. As one person said "It'd only require allocating a wing". Not sure exactly where the blame lies.


FredericLN I'd wager the Sauvons la recherche group is against the money going to only 4 schools.
(On the other hand, since most French universities are so decrepit as to belie their location in a developed, reasonably wealthy nation, it probably means to them that their buildings will collapse around them with 800 students on the steps of a lecture hall designed for 600, and the money will have been spent on 4 schools elsewhere. In Paris, I'd bet, come to think of it.)

Anonymous said...

Insofar as the "national champion" universities such as ParisTech & Paris-Sud (what are the other 2?) include mostly engineering grande écoles, I don't see this is siphoning money off to help boost universities.

I've been searching the net & newspaper archives to back up my assertion (but can't find a link), but I think the "grand emprunt" is mostly going to the top-tier schools, the grandes écoles, and select universities (Dauphine, Paris 6). So take it for what its worth, but honestly I aien't pulling this from my derrière, pardon my French.

I certainly hope these "grandes universités" have better fortune than the national champions of yore like Bull, Crédit Lyonnais et autres nullités du domaine économiques...

Chris P.