Monday, April 11, 2011

Pécresse at Harvard

Valérie Pécresse came to Harvard today and gave an impressive account of university reform in impeccable English. You can follow the proceedings via the liveblog transcript here. Given the number of people in the audience, I couldn't ask all of your questions, so I confined myself to asking about selection. Once the clusters are created, some will be "more excellent" than others. How will students be channeled to one rather than another? Her answer was somewhat evasive. Selection is going on now, she said, which is true, but the Grande École model of selection will not be viable in the cluster system, and the university selection (admit large numbers, flunk out large numbers after a couple of wasted years) is a poor use of resources. Much of her talk was focused on research and innovation in the sciences, which  is fine, but does not address the problems of the humanities, as Prof. Muriel Rouyer pointed out. The minister fended off this question by blaming the victim: grant applications had been invited, and humanities departments either did not apply or submitted proposals that did not meet with the approval of the jury.

Still, the overall impression left by the talk was positive. She understands many of the system's problems and has a set of prioritized strategies for achieving reform in a highly contentious environment. One can disagree with many particulars of the program and still be compelled to admit that alternative proposals would be subject to similar criticisms. One suggestion that appealed to me was the reform of the khâgne-hypokhâgne system. Pécresse noted that 4,500 students competed for just 200 places in two Ecoles Normales Supérieures. This was extremely wasteful and led to "selection by failure," with damage to student self-esteem. A reform has opened new avenues to those who are not selected, however. After finishing the khâgne, they now have other options, including political studies and entry into university master's programs.

One thing is clear: Mme Pécresse is a minister of talent.


Anonymous said...

I agree: Ms.Pécresse is a minister of talent. And in that government, that's worth noticing. (Think: MAM, Longuet, Bachelot, Berra, Guéant, Morin, Lefevre...)
However I have to point out that the hypokhage/khagne reform as presented here bears two problems:
#1: out of the 200 places, 100 successful candidates will come from Louis Le Grand and Henri IV (two elite Paris schools). Another 50 or so will come from other Paris schools (Fénelon, Duruy, Stanislas...) Having an elite is good, unless it comes from one and only one social class located in one specific area of the country - as if half candidates to Harvard came from Cambridge, another fourth from Boston's/MA's boarding schools, and the rest of the country had to share the remaining places.
#2: concurrent enrollment in a university has always been required for hypokhagne students - each year, they get an equivalency to the university major of their choice (within humanities). Many students who have no chance of getting admitted to Normale Sup simply enroll in these hypokhagne programs to skip the dreadful first two years of university. They re-enter as L3 students, generally with a double major, and go on to the concours. So entry into Master's programs was always a given for them.
What is new is that other Grandes Ecoles must now offer a handful of places (like: 20) for students with a Liberal Arts/humanities/foreign language background. I hope Pécresse will push forward so that the number of places is increased.
Overall, though, the competition is rather absurd: kids have 7 hours of class (pure rote learning, no discussion) + 1 hour of oral examination+ 3hours hw each day 5 days a week plus one half-day for written exams. There's hardly any research involved, even a mere freshman research paper - the basic evaluation is an in-class, 4-hour exam with one question such as "the nation-state, 1500-1800". I don't think this system teaches them the skills they need for a knowledge-based economy, especially since those are supposedly France's strongest young scholars.

As for selection, there is one: 40% kids never make it to the bac. Among the 60% who do, a good 15% never make it to the fac. In my opinion, the problem for France isn't how many more from the remaining 45% to keep out of college, but how to make those 45% successful.

Anonymous said...

Looks like the French elite will have to wait another year before diversifying its recruitment: none - not ONE- "scholarship student" was admitted to ENA this year, the first year when they accepted to reach out to non-upper/upper-middle candidates (often of a darker hue and of a different geographical origin than their usual recruits).

Wondering how it'd play in the US if a similar situation arose...

Laurent Bouvet said...

She isn't so talented ! "Her" reform has been widely contested, both by leftist unions and by conservative mandarins, and has created more bureaucracy and difficulties than it has solved problems. And as a politician, V. Pécresse is just dull and not so skilled (see her campaign for french regional election last year)
She was appointed as minister of higher education in 2007 by Sarkozy only because she was a young chirac former aid woman.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

I knew you'd disagree, Laurent, as do many of my French academic friends. When I say that she has talent, I mean that she understands the problems and has a strategy for confronting them. It may not work, not least because of the protests from conservative mandarins and leftist unions that you mention, but I'm not sure how these protests diminish her talent or accredit alternative strategies. And her failure in regional elections isn't pertinent either. She may have been appointed because she served Chirac, but she is intelligent and articulate and an énarque as well. You'll have to say more than that to persuade me to disbelieve my own lying eyes.

Anonymous said...

Let's face it: the so-called university reform Ms. Pécresse is so proud of has not resulted in any improvement whatsoever of our higher education system. No institution can claim to be autonomous if it does not have ability to select its own students. In spite of Ms. Pecresse assertion, and under pressure from student unions opposed to selection, nothing has changed with our universities: the most promising students still choose the grandes écoles and other selective trainings, and the rest is left with no other choice but universities under obligation to accept just anyone, where so many waste their time until dropping out. The only ones who have benefited from the so-called reform are university presidents, elected by a college of faculty, staff and students for their ability to please all, and certainly not for their vision. Previously serving for one 5-year term only, most of them were reelected for a second term, perpetuating inaction and satisfaction. This is not surprsing, since the President's, Prime Minister and Minister's advisors on higher education all are former university presidents. Universities such as ours are an absolute disgrace: we need a government with courage, determination and vision, currently badly lacking, to change this sad state of affairs.