Wednesday, June 13, 2007

French higher education

I posted before about the new Paris School for Economics and the changes that it might bode for French higher education.

Without any explicit connection drawn to that institution, some new developments, from the Chronicle.

Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to overhaul France's flagging higher-education system is one step closer to reality, after his conservative Gaullist party swept to victory in the first round of National Assembly elections last weekend.

Presenting his plan as part of an ambitious package of economic reforms, the newly elected president of France has pledged to allow universities greater autonomy, giving them leeway to exercise more control over admissions and their budgets and to impose some tuition fees. He has said he will pump billions into higher education, increasing universities' operating budgets by 50 percent over the next five years, and has proposed the creation of a new independent agency to oversee research and higher-education institutions.

Most French universities are public and, like much of France's vast public sector, are subject to extensive bureaucratic oversight and strict labor protections. Overcrowded, underfinanced, and poorly equipped, even renowned universities like the Sorbonne have slid down international-rankings tables.

"It's a catastrophic system," the Sorbonne's president, Jean-Robert Pitte, said of the situation now. Universities like his are bloated with students who enroll simply for lack of alternatives, he said, and their ranks are winnowed only by failure and withdrawal. At the master's-degree level, Mr. Pitte said, his university compares favorably with international rivals, but the costs are debilitating. "The problem is that French universities lack the means to compete and are functioning in a two-tier system," he said, referring to the gulf between the elite grandes ├ęcoles, which have long been the training ground for France's political and business leaders, and the universities.

Of course, not everyone's on board.

Students, however, have vociferously opposed many of Mr. Sarkozy's ideas, arguing that they run counter to France's egalitarian ethos.

The main national student union complains that students have been excluded from the political discussion of higher education and that the government is barreling ahead too quickly with its agenda.

"The objective of the reforms must be to permit university access to the largest number of students and to guarantee everyone success", the union said in a statement. [Italics mine-- JTL]