Friday, February 19, 2010

Larrouturou Report

The Larrouturou report on university reform in the Paris area can be consulted here. In some ways, French universities are in the enviable position of having a government that wants to spend more money on them rather than less: compare the UK. On the other hand, they need it more. But I wonder if France isn't missing an opportunity here.

The implicit model of French university reform seems to be the American model: residential campuses, lots of spending on science, laboratory buildings, etc. For a variety of reasons, I think this model may be reaching its limits. I have always found something appealing about the French model of a university more integrated into the fabric of urban life (perhaps because I went to MIT, which is hardly a cloister). But living conditions for students have become all but impossible in major French cities, and it is hard to build libraries, laboratories, etc.

Perhaps it is time to think of the problem in a different way. Students need to be able to learn from each other: this counts for at least as much as what they learn from their professors. But they don't need to be cloistered behind walls or surrounded by greensward and playing fields. Important resources (libraries, laboratories, supercomputers, large halls) can be pooled, and electronic sharing can multiply their effectiveness. The budgets devoted to physical plant should be reduced as much as possible, while the money supporting teaching and research positions (including staff support) should be increased. The logic behind combining existing institutions and physical plants seems to be, at least in part, to improve France's standing in the Shanghai rankings. This is a perverse incentive.

I am not proposing a strategy of du passé faisons table rase; that's not likely to work. But I am suggesting that there are different ways to think about what universities do, and about some of the unique strengths of the French setting. Paris vaut bien une messe, and studying in Paris is well worth a certain inconvenience. New thinking might also offer a way of finessing the problem of selection, which is a constant bugbear in French university reform proposals. Egalitarianism could be maintained by making expensive resources such as libraries available to all, while selectivity--necessary in my view for excellence--can be promoted by making admission to programs rather than institutions dependent on performance. Rather than sit for a concours to enter X, students would compete for places in a program of research on spintronics or the history of the welfare state or the economics of Antiquity.

The signals offered to prospective employers would become more diverse: rather than select graduates of X or Normale Sup, employers could interview candidates who'd completed programs in a range of skills relevant to their requirements. Performance in courses rather than institutional prestige and skill in passing concours would become the primary criterion of selection.


MYOS said...

Sorry Art, it's already the case. Open admission isn't really open, since there is the bac, but it's a minimal hurdle.
However, in order to enter the Masters Programs such as the ones you describe -- I assume that you don't mean that freshmen could realistically compete for places in a program on spintronics or history of the welfare state -- there already is a selection. In fact, if one compares the number of student enrolled in L2, then L3, and then M1, you clearly see there's a strict selection process at work.

DavidinParis said...

Name me some redeeming characteristics other than Open Admission...
I invite you to visit the university I work at here in Paris (really, just email me). If you think that broken windows, dirty floors, stairs posing as ashtrays, utter disregard for facilities that honestly inspire less than benign neglect can remotely resemble a framework from which to work from, you are gravely mistaken. MIT is admittedly cold, but I dare you to enter the mouldy halls of my university.
Open admission leads to 1000's of students who should not be subjected to the pain of eventual failure.
The recent recruit of near-retired Smoot aside (did you run an article about this charade yet?), this is no environment worth any further consideration. The percentage of mediocrity at the professorial level is mind boggling.

Unknown said...

David, Actually, I consider open admission a defect, not a virtue, as you seem to as well when you write of the "pain of eventual failure." You misunderstand me: I am not holding up the current Parisian universities as any kind of model; I am rather suggesting that to adopt the American-British model in France may well be a mistake, since it is unsustainable and ill-adapted to French traditions, methods, and strengths. I am suggesting that the concepts of "campus," "residence," "student life," and "learning from peers" be rethought and that more emphasis be placed on establishing productive social relations than on building impressive physical plants. I fully agree, however, that the decayed physical structure of many current French institutions cannot support learning.

DavidinParis said...

Sorry about that misunderstanding--this issue has me rather passionate as I was lured here with promises to build something more anglo-saxon. The problem with French 'tradition' is that 'traditionally' the universities have been run by the 'mandarins' who have little interest in academic excellence. The universities have been paid by the government per capita-students that walk through the door. Research grants obtained by scientists here pay the university about 8% (20% for EC grants). This is in contrast to MIT or even grade 'B' universities in the USA that get 50 to 86% overhead from the NIH.

Impressive grounds have untold benefits. When I was a young graduate student at Columbia University in NYC, the architecture, lab structure, and yes, 'regalia' made me feel that much more motivated to achieve results and reach high standards. Darwinian competitiveness (that evil academic American aura) was ever present, but then, considering how much higher education costs to say nothing of working in a research laboratory, I see no other choice. Higher academics can never be 'egalitarian' other than who has a chance to reach that level. But helas, I am afraid again the Grandes Ecoles versus the universities bury that issue as well.

By the way, did you look into the 'Smoot' recruit?

Unknown said...

David, I feel your pain and take your points. I did attempt to Google the Smoot story but came up empty. I assume you are referring to George Smoot of cosmic background radiation fame and not the hapless Smoot who was used as a measuring stick on the Harvard Bridge in Cambridge. Has someone tried to recruit Prof. Smoot for the French team?

DavidinParis said...

Arthur, you would do a better job digesting all this bu in a nutshell, George Smoot gets recruited. Proves that autonomy of the universities is working…or is it? (
Pour attirer George Smoot, Paris-VII n'a pas dû casser sa tirelire. A 64 ans, le Prix Nobel est recruté sur un poste de professeur de première classe (environ 4 500 euros brut mensuels), un salaire faible par rapport à ce qu'il pouvait gagner auparavant. Le chercheur s'offre avant tout un dernier challenge scientifique, celui d'établir un centre de cosmologie, en lien avec celui de Berkeley, l'université où il a fait toute sa carrière.

He gave away most of his winnings for the Nobel and likely has enough consulting jobs to make the salary issue irrelevant. He is 64 and has earned an evil US level salary for decades and now ‘retires’ to Paris (no more health insurance, nice nest egg saved up) and avoids eliciting jealousy from his egalitarian colleagues in France. So everyone (in France) is rejoicing the new competitive universities of France to attract G. Smoot. Leave it to Libé to come up with a more cynical view of this affair…é-à-paris7.html
Joli coup, pourrait-on dire, puisqu'avec un Nobel dans ses poches, l'Université Denis Diderot va grimper non au plafond mais au classement de Schanghaï, le seul qui compte semble t-il pour nos élites gouvernantes formés à HEC ou à l'ENA (ou les deux). Georges Smoot n'a évidemment pas promis aux instances de l'Université Denis Diderot qu'il résiderait toute l'année à Paris. D'ailleurs, il avait un avion pour le Japon et dirige un centre en Corée. Et je serais surpris que l'Université lui ait demandé de donner des cours en licence ou de corriger des copies.
The president of Paris VI makes his editorial in LeMonde extolling the ‘collective’ and duty to the state (for me a bit scarry but that’s another story).
You gotta to read the next one to believe it! A true twist to the surreal, the whole affair is used in the following blog to reassure us here in France that Smoot had to leave the horrible, Darwinian, spirit crushing atmosphere of the USA universities! So….the next editorial starts with Smoot and then segues to Amy Bishop (the biologist who shot her colleagues in the USA after being denied tenure).
…Au même moment, suite à la tragédie survenue à l'Université d'Alabama à Huntsville (UAH) où la neurobiologiste Amy Bishop aurait tué trois de ses collègues après s'être vu refuser une tenure (emploi permanent) d'enseignante à 44 ans et avec quatre enfants,la presse US s'est lancée dans une fouille du passé de l'intéressée. Mais si le drame de l'UAH paraît de nature à amener un questionnement à propos du système destenures en vigueur aux Etats-Unis, force est de constater que les évènements anciens supposés auraient eu lieu alors qu'Amy Bishop était étudiante à Boston ou enseignante à l'Université de Harvard (UAH). De quoi s'interroger également sur la pression permanente que l'actuel système universitaire des Etats-Unis exerce sur les individus, et sur les effets destructeurs d'un tel système que l'on cherche aussi à imposer chez nous depuis quelques années.

OK…if everything is so nice in the land of collective state-serving academics, how do we account for the brain drain in the opposite direction? To recruit a Nobel laureate (just one) was a deft PR move by Paris VI, but to maintain the young talent in appropriate facilities with the hope of decent pay is the real investment for the state, for the people and for the youth who are offered about 2 positions per year state-wide in their respective disciplines.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the story, but of course you put your finger on the problem: recruiting late-career superstars is not enough to make a great university. Let's keep an eye on those 10 post-docs, to see if they actually materialize. Still, I'm intrigued by the choice of cosmology. I would have thought they'd go for a more pragmatic discipline for a first shot.

MCG said...

Art, what you say about the advantages of a university's being in the city is correct. Columbia--the university related to Barnard College, my alma mater--has grass and trees, to be sure, but it is an urban university, right in Manhattan. When one of my law graduate students told me she'd loved Amherst because it was just like the suburbs, I had a hard time at first understanding what she was talking about. Turns out she loved the homogeneity of the students and the charm of the surroundings. With due respect to Amherst, the comfort of suburban life cannot be expected either to challenge students or to fertilize their thinking.

MYOS said...

I bet they approached many people and chose the only person who chose them regardless of salary (under $50,000/year for G.Smoot! He must be thinking it's pocket money.)

David is right: facilities are "abominable". How France can stand universities in that shape is beyond me. I think that any other program - BTS, IUT, prépa, whatever school - is better than rundown universities where students sit on steps in huge lecture halls, trying to take notes on pads resting on their knees, with electric wire dangling above their heads. Actually kids who speak English should go about anywhere they want outside of this mess of poverty that is French universities.
(I'll grant you that those who work there are very crafty and really do the best they can in miraculous conditions.)

I don't think the solution is in chucking Virtually-Open-Admissions though - when the US passed the GI Bill, it sent to the landgrants and colleges boys who only had a basic education - as if France were accepting kids WITHOUT bac. Yet it managed to teach them, universities built enough buildings to accommodate them, and its general standing went up, not down. bac-based admission is too easy a culprit.