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French higher education...Under threat of change

Nada Almutawa
09/06/2008 12:00 AM

French higher education

Under threat of change

Jun 5th 2008 | TOULOUSE
From The Economist print edition

Slowly but surely, universities in France—and across all of Europe—are reforming


BENEATH the medieval cloisters and bleak 1960s campuses of Europe`s universities, the ground is trembling. For years, Europeans have talked of doing something about higher education, so as to prepare better for the “knowledge economy”. But lingering taboos—over tuition fees, private finance, or competition—have inhibited the timid and frustrated the bold. Now, however, there are the first stirrings of genuine change.

The shortcomings of Europe`s universities are well-known. Only two European universities (Cambridge and Oxford) are in Shanghai Jiao Tong University`s global top 20. Europeans spend an average of $10,191 per student, measured at purchasing-power parity, next to $22,476 in America. They devote only 1.3% of GDP to higher education, compared with 2.9% in America, and—unlike in America—almost all of it is public money. Only 24% of working-age Europeans have a degree, compared with 39% of Americans. And Europe bags an ever-declining share of Nobel prizes.

Yet some changes have begun. One, inelegantly known as “the Bologna process”, involves the harmonisation of European degrees into an Anglo-Saxon “bachelors, masters and doctorate” structure. Despite fierce resistance in some quarters, by 2007 nearly three-quarters of countries had over 60% of higher-education students enrolled on courses compatible with the new structure. As the scheme settles down, it should promote mobility in both the education and labour markets, and give a further boost to the popular Erasmus student-exchange programme.

Another Europe-wide project is the new European Research Council. Designed to boost investment in pioneering scientific research, it will inject some €335m ($520m) this year in starting grants to individual research projects, bypassing national governments. It is awarding these grants, on the basis of peer review, to some 430 of the 9,137 researchers who put in bids for them.

Individual countries have also been busy. Since 2005 Germany has allowed states to charge tuition fees of up to €1,000 a year. It is trying to foster elite universities by encouraging them to compete for money. The Netherlands has given universities sweeping autonomy. Oxford University has just launched a campaign to raise £1.25 billion ($2.45 billion), the biggest fund-raising drive of any European academic institution. Britain has introduced tuition fees for England and Wales, now running at up to £3,300 a year.

Now France is having a go. It has 1.4m students enrolled in 82 state-owned universities. There are no tuition fees, nor is selection of students on entry allowed, apart from the required baccalauréat. Lecture halls are swamped; first-year medical students camp out early for scarce places. Campus libraries close at weekends. As many as 52% of undergraduates fail after their first year; and 90,000 students quit university each year without a degree. France`s brightest students compete for places at the elite, fee-paying universities, known as the grandes écoles, instead. And the best researchers snap up well-financed jobs abroad.

Given this depressing picture, an event on June 2nd in a rain-soaked quadrangle in Toulouse was startling. Before a crowd of international economists and French business chiefs, Valérie Pécresse, the universities minister, inaugurated the Toulouse School of Economics (TSE), a graduate school of the University of Toulouse 1. Its English name and English-only teaching are not the only novelties. The school announced that it had raised fully €33m, from private sponsors such as AXA, Total and BNP Paribas. Ms Pécresse is to match every euro raised with the equivalent in public money. Visibly moved, Jean Tirole, the new school`s director, called it the “realisation of a dream”.

The launch of the TSE reflects two changes. The first is that, since last year, French universities have been granted autonomy. This means that universities, or departments, can set up private foundations, as the TSE has done, with tax breaks for donors. This will allow them to recruit the researchers they want, at the salaries the foundations allow them to pay (though like the TSE, they still cannot charge tuition fees or select students at entry level). The TSE intends to offer 18 new economics professorships over the next three years, to help reverse the brain drain. At one time, universities and companies looked at each other with deep mutual suspicion. Now, Michel Pébereau, chairman of BNP Paribas, calls the TSE a “model of excellence” for Europe.

Second, the once-sacred principle of equal treatment has been blown away. Past reforms have been guided by the idea that everybody should have a fair share. By rewarding the TSE`s efforts, Ms Pécresse has explicitly blessed competition. She has also set up a €5 billion campus-renovation fund, to be allocated only to the ten best bids, forcing rival research and teaching bodies to co-operate. Last week she announced the first six winners from among a total of 46 bids, including a joint one from Toulouse 1 and other institutions in the city. They will use the money to build a new student centre, a digital library and a sports complex. As if to rub in her point, Ms Pécresse turned down several bids, including some from Paris.

The TSE is in some ways an exception: a centre of research that has for years been battling with pesky bureaucratic rules on hiring and financing that the government has now lifted. But it is not the only example. Universities in Grenoble, which also won a slice of the campus-renovation money, have been working with local research bodies and companies in technology and innovation. Strasbourg, yet another of Ms Pécresse`s winners, is next January merging its three universities—which, like many French campuses, were split after the student riots of May 1968—to create a single, decent-sized institution that can compete internationally.

All of this is still tentative. Companies may be happy to support economics or science, less so philosophy or sociology. With stretched public finances, it is hard to see how university finances can be stable in the long run without tuition fees; yet they are firmly ruled out. And there remains fierce student and teaching-union resistance to any changes, thwarting reform on many campuses and often taking their protests to the streets.

Putting more money in is only half the answer. French universities also need to be freed from meddling bureaucrats, and in return to be made more accountable. A study for Bruegel, a Brussels think-tank, concluded that “having budget autonomy doubles the effect of additional money on university research performance.” Ministers may not be keen to relinquish control; French ones tightened their grip after May 1968. It is fitting that, exactly 40 years on, even they are at last having to let go. source : the economist