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.

Multiculturalism Revisited

For a philosophical review of the issues raised by multicultural practices (of which the "Quick halal" controversy is just one example--see previous post), see this thoughtful paper by Will Kymlicka.

Barbier Joins Le Pen

For commentary on this amalgame, see here. Notice how the Islamophobic arguments are spinning out of control. The foulard was to be banned in schools, first, because of a tradition of laïque education (never mind that it applied to teachers, not pupils) and, second, because young women were being oppressed by their brothers and fathers (never mind that some chose to wear the scarf on their own). Then the burqa was to be banned everywhere, because republicanism requires equality between the sexes (though I have yet to see a female priest, political parties violate the parité law, men's and women's wages for equal work are not equal, etc.) and because unidentified "radicals" were "testing the Republic" by placing their female operatives in "ambulatory prisons." Now, a fast-food chain tries to pick off a little market share by recognizing that there are a lot of potential Muslim customers, and Christophe Barbier, defender of those two bastions of civilization, BHL and la République française, vows un baroud d'honneur: We shall stop them in Roubaix! But surely it isn't the Salafists who are urging the faithful to eat ... hamburgers!

An excellent editorial by Claude Weill can be found here:

Il est de bon ton de dire que le débat sur l’identité nationale a fait pschitt. Malheureusement, je ne le crois pas. Le mal est fait. Ce vaste défoulement collectif organisé sous l’égide du ministère de l’Immigration a produit son venin, qui ne cesse de diffuser au sein de la société française.

UPDATE: Charles Bremner's comment is here.

Business, Meet Literature

Someone thinks French businesses should hire French lit majors, and 94% of those with masters are finding jobs within 3 years (!) of graduating, only 1% less than graduates with other kinds of degrees, but les atomes crochus seem to be in scarce supply on both sides, with a guy from Price Waterhouse telling literary types that "we are not the devil" and a guy with a masters in philo who is today a financial manager assuring his comrades that "littéraires are not dreamers." And then there's the fellow from Rothschild's whose ambition is to "format" young poets before it's too late:

"Les entreprises fonctionnent à l’habitude, et quand 90 % des salariés sont issus d’HEC ou de l’ESSEC, ils vont embaucher ceux qui leur ressemblent. L’idéal est de recruter les littéraires juste après leur diplôme, quand ils sont encore des pages blanches sur lesquelles on peut écrire.

Perhaps he's forgotten that Mallarmé wrote of "la page blanche que sa blancheur défend." In finance, presumably, les blancs becs are defenseless before the dangled dreams of wealth to make Croesus blush, and il faut tenir la dragée haute.