One thing the French are very proud of is their universities. Not only are standards high, apart from yearly fees of about $300, higher education is free. It's also independent of commercial interests. Big business doesn't have any control over the curriculum like it has in many countries now through financing job training for business and commerce, and university research to suit itself and its goals: profits from new product development. In France you don't go to school to get a job. You get an education first.
The contrast couldn't be more extreme between the high costs other students pay or can't pay and so don't go, and the ready access to education in France. As fundamental, is the decline in education that France has largely avoided, with students more literate before they go to university, and more mature on the need to work once they get in. Anything threatening a solid French education is taken seriously. The new threat is government reform.
Universities are slipping everywhere with huge classes and an assembly line approach. Worse is the trend in many American and European institutions of transforming themselves into extremely expensive glorified Community Colleges, with Arts and Humanities especially relegated to the dustbin of we can't afford this and who needs this anyway. The proposed reforms aren't tackling these problems. French reform is about efficiency, accountability of lecturers-researchers and the value of their research or lack of it. It's also about giving universities more autonomy, a new direction toward a corporate merger with industry and commerce: a new source of financing. It's the current game plan in American Universities for better or worse. The reaction in France from academics and students has been an overwhelming no way!
General mobilizations of profs and students since February 5th against the new proposed law reforming universities, the LRU, have broken out from university campuses into the streets, paralyzing French higher education. From a public Princesse de Clèves read-in in Paris to make a point on the importance of a liberal education, to mass demonstrations against the LRU's barrage of reforms. President Sarkozy and Co are under attack. Some protesters have even accused the President not only of being out of touch with the French esprit but of using poor French to knock the University Establishment, so what does he know about education?
So little it seems that he's alienated 70-odd universities against his reforms, not just students but the lecturers-researchers who started the massive strikes throughout France since his colloquial jab in January at the cushy non-competitive university life enjoyed by unproductive profs and researchers who publish 30% to 50% less (in some disciplines) say than their British counterparts.
In the name of greater university autonomy and efficiency Sarkozy wants to give university presidents, presidential powers over academic staff and researchers and research itself. Staff performance will be reviewed every four years. Researchers who don't publish enough could be punished by having to teach more. Universities will be encouraged to find private financing for research and programs, pitting them against each other. Some 900 jobs cut. Already in place, one in two vacant positions due to retirement, not filled as the Sarkozy policy goes in the Civil Service.
Sarkozy's January get with it speech from the Elysée, in defense of the LRU reforms made public last October by his minister for higher education Valérie Pécresse, has sparked a May '68 reaction that has shutdown nearly all universities in France. Though many lecturers-researchers supporting the strikes are still drawing salaries while they strike, an element of farce not ignored by their non-striking colleagues, still most strikers claim they are trying to save the semester by carrying on with classes where they can, even in cafés. The strikes and marches go on in spite of French government backpedaling on the LRU. Entirely peaceful, good-humored protests that have simply closed down the universities without any use of force.
Only at the Sorbonne in Paris have tensions skyrocketed. The anti-reform movement took the offensive, finally clashing with the forces of order. Here's the direct link, if your reader doesn't support the window below, to a dramatic student video on the Sorbonne occupation from the Sorbonne's student newsmagazine, Contrepoint.
Up until March 4th, the Sorbonne, France's oldest and largest university, managed to remain open until students and profs tried to occupy it twice. The next day they voted for a total strike and now the Sorbonne is under siege by security forces to keep militants out, hundreds of police and private security guards called in by the university administration. With classes disrupted anyway by anti-reform students and profs sneaking in, the lecture halls were finally locked.
Tensions throughout France were high the next day March 5th with planned demonstrations in many cities against La LRU - "mon cul!" and the Loi Pécresse - "mes fesses!" 24,000 to 43,000 marched in Paris countered by 9,000 police, and this just before Pécresse was to announce further concessions the next day.
Over three sessions of negotiations with 4 unions representing many of the 57,000 or so lecturers-researchers, Pécresse modified the LRU, meeting some objections, returning to the status quo on others, but hanging on to one important change:
a peer review of performance every 4 years.
Forcing researchers to teach more if their research performance wasn't good enough, was dropped. And evaluations would not come from the office of a university president as before, but from the CNU, the national university council.
Not good enough for the largest of the unions, Snesup-FSU, which hadn't even participated in the discussions with the government. Le Monde quoted a union representative as "noting" the new "inflections" but they were "far from being sufficient".
If the modified LRU goes ahead now this September it means no jobs cut through 2011.
The main bone of contention, performance evaluation goes ahead without any teeth, amounting to another academic exercise, embarrassing, time-consuming, stressful and perhaps unfair. How do you evaluate research and teaching and then measure it? And couldn't such a process become political?
Though some academics in France and Britain think a movement to accountability on
performance is a good idea. After all it's a well known fact that some researchers don't like teaching and some lecturers aren't good at teaching either. In the end it's the students who pay for these university indulgences. Though how do you fix abuses and poor performance without some penalties attached? How do you avoid alienating the majority of lecturers-researchers who do their best anyway, when you start poking into their careers, or fishing for personal problems they might have that affect their performance?
What it comes down to is an attack on university tenure. It's the same sort of protection awarded to judges in the courts of Europe. Once appointed they aren't accountable for their performance. It makes perfect sense to leave them to do their work, instead of having to defend it. The screening process should be enough to select the best people, and the laws of the land to keep them honest. The judges of the U.S. Supreme Court also have tenure and by and large tenure for university academics is longstanding practice and fundamental to academic freedom most everywhere.
It also means politics can't sink into university life, that profs aren't afraid of being fired for expressing opinions or being critical of anything in society. It's an essential right which shouldn't be compromised by governments and university administrations, even if there are some faults and abuses Sarkozy wants to fix.
In any case tenure is under attack in other ways since the 1960's when many profs supported the students over university policies and government failures. This is a hot issue which only simmers in the university community. If you haven't got tenure, complaining could get you fired.
Tenure used to be automatic after a number of years for an assistant professor. Now it's being withheld at some universities indefinitely on no other grounds except the additional costs of tenure, added salary and benefits and no other way of cutting staff during a downturn. This puts a considerable strain on the younger and financially strapped assistant profs still paying off enormous student loans who perhaps might feel obliged to earn their tenure in other ways, if they can't get it through their academic brilliance. It creates a corporate atmosphere of having to climb the ladder of success, where money, power and position become the objects of university life and politics the means.
The struggle between the French government and the universities goes on. There's no end in sight. A dozen academic and student unions and associations voted March 6th to continue the strikes.
When a million French took to the streets in January to voice their discontent with business and commerce and government inaction on the economic crisis, what could Sarkozy expect when he wanted to fix something French that wasn't broken? --NewsHammer 3/09/2009
Le Monde 7/03/2009, Compromis entre Valérie Pécresse et quatre syndicats sur le statut des enseignants-chercheurs
AFP 5/03/2009, Universités: des milliers de manifestants à Paris et en province
Contrepoint, coverage by students of the Sorbonne
Portail de veille sur le mouvement de l'Université, a message board on the LRU Protest
UniversitésEnLutte, a major association concerned with university issues and the LRU
Sauvonsl'Université, a major association concerned with university issues and the LRU
Elysée 01/22/2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy's speech on LRU reforms, video and transcript
English Sources: UniversityWorldNews
France: Academics strike over job status, 2/01/2009
France: Lecturers strike despite increased funding, 2/08/2009
France: Strikes spread despite mediator, 2/15/2009
France: End to academic strikes?, 3/01/2009
France: Lecturers vote to continue strike, 3/08/2009