Dispatch from Paris: French universities, dans la m… encore

by Michèle Lamont on June 25, 2009

Over the past several months, French academics have been facing a grave situation. The Sarkozy Government has proposed a reform of the universities that would put more power into the hands of the president of their university, and weaken the role of peer review. This reform will significantly affect the degree of autonomy of faculty teaching in universities. It is feared that university presidents will depend on their local protégés (who are often selected on political, instead of academic criteria) to make a number of important decisions that will affect the lives of faculty. Universalistic mechanisms had been put in place at the national level to prevent local favoritism and particularism. This system is now threatened from within.

University faculty (to be distinguished from those who teach in the more privileged Grandes Ecoles, such as Sciences Po, and those who are solely researchers and paid by the Centre nationale de recherche scientifique (CNRS, a national agency that supports fundamental research)) have responded by mounting an important strike, which has paralyzed many universities in Paris and in the provinces this spring. A number of university presidents have led the movement, stating that they disapproved of the reform because it would weaken the university. University faculty members have spent their spring involved in countless activities aimed at putting pressure on the government, which has not backed down. Colleagues who don’t teach at the university were mobilized as well and held “journés d’études” and other activities to support their colleagues (the websites of a number or research laboratories still state that they are “en lutte” [showing solidarity in struggle]). An important group of  students mobilized as well in support of the faculty, who put in place programs that would allow students to do individual projects on the basis of which they could be evaluated and receive grades [remember that the French job market for young people is in terrible shape and that students often view faculty as belonging to the privileged class]. Countless American students who were participating in study abroad programs were called back by their universities.

With the end of the semester, there has been a demobilization, but the Ministre de l’enseignement supérieur, Valérie Pécresse, has just announced that she is moving forward again with the reform of the CNRS, another important part of a more general policy that would reduce the autonomy of researchers and integrate them within the university. It is expected that the government will take advantage of the summer to push its policies further.

Since the Bologna agreement, which required that all European universities harmonize their programs to allow students to study throughout Europe, many European universities have initiated academic reforms with the explicit or implicit goal of raising academic standards and competing with the giant system of American higher education.  Progressive academics interpret this movement as a neo-liberal-inspired reform movement to foster competition among universities and academics, and one where the logic of publish and perish is becoming more omnipresent. In this context, the American peer-review system looms large as a point of reference, although I have observed that few people seem to understand what it entails.

There are massive differences in the scale of higher education systems (with, for instance, more than 3000 universities and colleges in the United States and 83 in France). I believe that the American peer-review system works the way it does because our system produces academics who learn early on how evaluation should be conducted, how personal relationships should be managed, and what gives the system its legitimacy (in a nutshell, because academic markets distribute rewards, and because the scale of the system is such that no one controls the whole scene in a discipline– see How Professors Think for the full argument). And in many fields (especially book fields and fields where books and articles are produced), American academics remain very skeptical toward bibliometric methods, H-factors, and other quantitative approaches to determining excellence, just at a time when France (the country of the enlightenment and of scholarly and cultural connoisseurship) is turning toward it. It is a sad day in the patrie of René (aka “je pense donc je suis”) Descartes …. Academic evaluation is enabled by long-term exposure to a detailed classification system that allows one to understand what is new and significant. Until Sarkozy and the other French technocrats understand this, they will have a hard time proposing a policy that will gain the support of experts.

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{ 14 comments }

1

John Quiggin 06.25.09 at 10:18 pm

I’m struck by the extent to which the desire to match the US is a central theme for Australian administrators who would be horrified if they ever visited a US institution other than, perhaps, the ‘University’ of Phoenix (given what they come up with, I can only assume they’ve never done so).

If I proposed, for example, that appointment and tenure decisions should be made by the faculty in each department, with only a marginal capacity for the Dean to overrule them, I’m sure this would be interpreted as evidence that I was still dreaming of ’68 in Paris. And if I suggested that major internal reorganisations should be undertaken once a century or so (as at Harvard, for example), it would be seen as the kind of resistance to change that is typical of old-fashioned academics clinging to the Oxbridge model.

2

Matt 06.25.09 at 10:56 pm

I don’t want to take this too far from the main topic, which is quite interesting and something I don’t know much about, but I wonder if this claim by John is quite right:
If I proposed, for example, that appointment and tenure decisions should be made by the faculty in each department, with only a marginal capacity for the Dean to overrule them…
Maybe that describes accurately a lot of schools in the US, but certainly not all. At Penn, for example, the majority of tenure denials come outside of the faculty, at the “appointments committee”, a body which makes recommendations to the dean that the dean almost always follows. Without the approval of this committee, a body that is interdisciplinary and that doesn’t allow members from a department to vote on its own choices, tenure can almost never be granted, or an appointment made. (There seems to be a lot of trouble with different standards applied by difference disciplines here, too, of the sort discussed in Michele’s earlier posts.) My understanding is that at Harvard top administrators also have a very important role and regularly turn down department recommendations. This is probably less so at other universities, but the individual departments certainly don’t always have the majority say.

3

John Quiggin 06.26.09 at 12:42 am

Any statement about the US is a broad brush, of course, but I’d offer the following claim. In most places, the department has an effective veto, and almost everywhere it has a substantial say.

In Australia, there is no formal role at all for the department (these days, mostly called a school and often an interdisciplinary mishmash created for administrative convenience), except that appointments committees (these are different for each job) will include some staff members. And, in a lot of places, though not at UQ I’m happy to say, there’s no effective role either. The first you (where you = “assistant/associate/full professor, but not head of school”) find out about an appointment (or dismissal, though they are much rarer) is when you get the email annnouncing it.

Anyway, sorry for derailing the thread, but it’s worth noting that this isn’t just a French, or European, problem.

4

Z 06.26.09 at 1:57 am

In France, appointments, for the time being, can only be made at the recommendation of a “commission de spécialistes” composed of faculties in the same field from the university in question and other higher education institutions. The law protested, and for the moment postponed but probably not indefinitely, would give the president of the university the power to hire without the assentiment of the appointment committee (there are no tenure-track position in France so the question of tenure does not exist). So interestingly the law actually intends to move the french system away from the american one.

Progressive scholars certainly worry about the Bologna agenda, but I think they are a minority (an active one probably but still) in the protest movement. Even very conservative, some would self-describe as reactionary, researchers took a very active role (see QSF for instance) because 1) researchers in general are sick and tired of working for months with the government to devise a reform acceptable to all parties only to see laws and decrees come-up which bear no relationship at all with what was discussed 2) the last law was really egregious in its attack on academics capacity to define academic excellence with their own criteria.

One last thing, though I suscribe to everything Michèle Lamont wrote, I think it could give an exaggerated image of the difference between CNRS and universities to someone alien to the system. In my field at least, CNRS employees work mostly in joint unit with university faculties, so that any attack on, or more neutrally reform of, one greatly impacts the other.

5

Z 06.26.09 at 2:50 am

Why, oh why, did I forget to write “commission de spec1alistes” when referring to french appointment committees.

6

Tom T. 06.26.09 at 3:24 am

(with, for instance, more than 3000 universities and colleges in the United States and 83 in France)

Can these numbers be right? France has 3% as many universities as the US? Are there some other sorts of comparable institutions that are not being counted?

7

StevenAttewell 06.26.09 at 4:49 am

Well, keep in mind that the 3,000 universities and colleges in the U.S includes everything from diploma mills to the Ivies and a lot in between. If you actually look at the stats, despite the U.S seeming huge advantage in proportion college-educated, most Americans who go to college go through two-year Associate’s program to pick up job skills – what back in the day would have been an apprenticeship to learn a trade.

My guess is that, while the U.S probably does have more institutes of higher learning than France (probably due to the legacy of New England independent centers of learning, the Morrill college system, etc. vs. the more centralized French state), that the proportion and number of what we in the U.S would call “research 1” universities and their elite student bodies probably isn’t that different.

8

alex 06.26.09 at 7:34 am

It’s when I read passages like this:

“…academic reforms with the explicit or implicit goal of raising academic standards and competing with the giant system of American higher education. Progressive academics interpret this movement as a neo-liberal-inspired reform movement to foster competition among universities and academics, and one where the logic of publish and perish is becoming more omnipresent.”

That I wonder a) if academic standards should not, indeed, be raised; and b) if a little ‘publish or perish’ might do some good here.

I will also throw out there, for discussion, the suggestion that, like most French militant action, this concerns the protectionist response of an entrenched corporatist elite, and offers nothing, literally nothing, that would ameliorate the real problems restricting educational attainment for excluded groups within French society. Let us always remember that France has got one of the lowest rates of Trade Union membership of all developed countries, and a pretty high and persistent rate of youth unemployment. They talk a good game, I’ll admit, but the numbers speak for themselves.

9

weserei 06.26.09 at 1:38 pm

Do most American schools provide “that appointment and tenure decisions should be made by the faculty in each department, with only a marginal capacity for the Dean to overrule them?” Interesting to hear. At my alma mater, the department’s only role was to propose searches, which would then be carried out by a faculty group appointed by a committee of the Faculty Senate. Departments had virtually no role in the tenure process–the department chair was supposed to advise the faculty committee that advised the President, but that was it. And the President had the power to refuse search requests, hires, renewals, and grants of tenure for any reason or none–a power he exercised quite freely.

10

Bostoniangirl 06.26.09 at 2:48 pm

At Harvard I remember one situation in which an assistant professor had been recommended by the department. But the president declined to approve the recommendation. (Of course, he “gave” the authority to the department by citing private communication from certain faculty members.)

I am not as familiar with the French system as I should be. Is there a good run-down of how the Grandes Écoles operate?

11

burritoboy 06.26.09 at 3:03 pm

“Can these numbers be right? France has 3% as many universities as the US? Are there some other sorts of comparable institutions that are not being counted?”

Why not? The US had more colleges in 1702 than England did at that time. The colonies had three colleges (Harvard, William & Mary, Yale) and England only had two. By the time the third English university was founded (1820’s, there’s at least three major claimaints to the title), there were more than 25 American colleges or universities. Remember that most American states have at least two different upper education systems: the doctorate granting university (usually called “University of [name of state], [name of town]” or some variation) and a lower tier state university system (usually called “[name of state] State University at [name of town]”.

My college town had five different liberal arts colleges in one town – admittedly, that was Claremont, but none of those five colleges would be concievable in France.

12

Stuart 06.26.09 at 5:57 pm

Also remember that in the US many universities do double duty as sports academies, which probably accounts for tens of thousands of extra students at least.

13

Fr. 06.26.09 at 7:00 pm

“Technocrat” as used in the closing sentence is abusive: both Sarkozy and Pécresse have been criticised by protesters for being unqualified to judge over all things academic. Sarkozy and Pécresse cannot claim a tenth of Holdren’s scientific credentials. The whole French government is probably less cognizant of university teaching than Obama alone.

14

Z 06.26.09 at 11:06 pm

Can these numbers be right? France has 3% as many universities as the US? Are there some other sorts of comparable institutions that are not being counted?

Sure. First of all, as Michèle mentioned, there are “Grandes écoles”. A rapid calculation convinced that they were about 150 of those (more on them below). Then, there are what we call technological institute (there are about 120 of those), then “schools” (a prime example of a “school” in France would be an institution where you train to become a nurse; schools might or might not be part of universities), then some institutions which deliver “qualified technician certificate” and which are physically found in high-schools but are higher education institutions (at least 200 of those, perhaps many more, I don’t really know). All in all, universities account for slightly more than half of students in higher education institution. Also, I think one has to realize that the average french university tends to be quite big, whereas I am guessing that there are numerous relatively small american colleges.

Is there a good run-down of how the Grandes Écoles operate?

One peculiarity of the French system is that the most prestigious higher education institutions are not universities at all but relatively small schools (think a few hundred students per year) which generally require an entrance exam (more precisely, a concours) to enter. A grande école usually is specialized in one academic field (sciences, or business, or administration etc.). The best french high school and undergraduate students tend to go there. To enter a good deal of those écoles, one has first to prepare this entrance exam for one or more usually two years in special institutions called preparatory classes. Note that contrary to many countries, doing two years in those classes then entering a “grande école” is the most prestigious academic choice, not something for failing students. Usually, one stays three years in a “grande école” and goes out with a master degree (2 years of classes plus 3 years of école). Among the famous (in France) grandes écoles are Polytechnique, Centrale, Mines in the sciences HEC, ESSEC in business and Sciences Po/ENA in political sciences but there are many more in various academic fields. One very peculiar grande école is the “École Normale Supérieure” (ENS) which is very small in size, very competitive to enter in and which prepares to research and teaching.

Now the really surprising fact is that “grandes écoles”, though clearly more prestigious at the undergraduate and master level, do not in general deliver PhD., and are certainly not the most prestigious research institutions, when research is done there at all, because research faculties are usually very few (the exception here being ENS). So in some sense, Polytechnique is the MIT, but much smaller and without a PhD. program, so in fact not the MIT at all.

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