Ben Wildavsky. Arriving in Paris for a visit of a few days, I’ve been pondering the state of French higher education. I’ve written before about the system’s shortcomings, as have many others. In an excellent piece last June, the Chronicle’s Aisha Labi noted that “the defining ethos for French universities”  – like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe – “has been egalitarianism, with institutions largely indistinguishable from one another in terms of mission and institutional profile.” In his 2009 book The Great American University, Columbia University sociologist Jonathan Cole cites some of the challenges France faces in creating a great university system. Despite some excellent (mostly small) institutions, and preeminence in fields like mathematics, biology, and engineering, Cole argues that these strengths may not be enough to overcome serious structural obstacles to reform.
Cole points to the problem of brain drain, noting that even relatively small numbers of departing academics can mask a significant problem if those are disproportionately the most productive scholars. He criticizes the disconnect between the elite grandes écoles and the universities attended by most students (“A system of higher learning cannot afford to siphon of the top talent in the nation.”) And he deplores the tenure system at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), which supports most research in France; new hires are immediately given lifetime tenure “with only perfunctory” later reviews, he writes, and thus lack incentives to perform. There’s more, too – enough to make an observer think that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s far-reaching university reforms, announced amid massive controversy in 2007, have little chance of making any headway.
And yet. When I’ve touched on these topics in public forums and private conversations, a couple of thoughtful defenders of the French system have challenged this narrative – not to argue that all is fine, but to suggest that there is more variety in the system, and more progress being made, than many critics acknowledge. One correspondent contends, for example, that an ethos of competition has entered the research world – with teams of scholar being dissolved when their work is deemed inadequate, and many projects being launched under strict performance contracts. He notes, too, that even the oft-criticized mass access public universities are more selective than one might think – it’s much harder to be admitted to a master’s program than into the initial degree programs to which all holders of a baccalauréat are automatically admitted.
Particularly positive news for the new reforms came in January when the French government agency that evaluates research and higher education released a four-year, 600-page report reporting significant progress in many areas. It cited numerous results of the increased autonomy being granted to universities, including new collaborations between universities and research centers, universities and other institutions of higher education, and universities and business. It noted a “boom in the big cities” resulting from the government’s Opération Campus initiative, which has devoted billions of Euros to a competitive program intended to create a small group of world-class research universities, as well as from the “big loan” – a government initiative to raise significant new funds for higher education.
I suspect the forces of tradition (and reaction) cited by Cole and other observers will continue to make serious changes in the French higher ed system tough. But I’m looking forward to learning more about the situation this week. And I’m pleasantly surprised to find out how much reform-minded activity is going on already.