ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: À quoi doit servir l’université ?
by Jacqueline Sellem, animator of the round table
Translated Wednesday 17 June 2009, by
Part 5 : Continuation of the Debate. 
Participants in the Round Table :
Frédérique Bassino, professor of computer science at Paris XIII, member of the national administrative commission of the SNESUP.
Isabelle Bruno, assistant professor in Political Science at the Universty of Lille-II.
Jean-Louis Fournel, assistant professor in language and literature at Paris VIII, president of the association Sauvons l’Université (Save the University).
François Vatin, professor of Sociology at the University Paris-Ouest-Nanterre, signer of the Manifesto for the Re-Foundation of the French University .
When one speaks of the ability of the universities to attract students, the question of means is by no means an idle matter. Higher education must, at the present time, face up to an influx of new high school graduates, and this new public is not the same as it was forty years ago. By contrast, the preparatory classes [for the grandes écoles], the paths toward the technical schools, special sections for technicians, or private schools (not necessarily of high quality, to tell the truth) have in common not their selectivity, but the fact that in such smaller structures the students are given more attention, whereby they are for many hours in the presence of teaching personnel. This assurance of being able to benefit from a structured learning environment counts for a lot in their choice of orientation. From this point of view, we can’t be satisfied with the present operation of the universities; they are simply not attractive. So I come back to the question of means, and in particular to the number of qualified teachers, those with a broader view of events, with ideas, doing research; this is the essential. This won’t fix everything, but it’s one of the necessary conditions for a fight against failure in school, and will make it possible to launch innovative projects, adapted to publics that heretofore have had no access to university.
Listening to François Vatin, one would believe that the problem with universities is a lack of personnel, but our battle-horse, the demand, in the face of 900 teaching positions to be eliminated, for a plan for job creation, stretching over a number of years, is due to the student overload, which leads to an inadequate pedagogical presence. The task is to offer better conditions for study. Well, this depends directly on the working conditions of the university personnel, which have become more and more precarious.
The minister of education announces that the reductions in university personnel for next year are the consequence of the strikes. This is a public relations exercise. But he’s not taking many risks, because the movement toward reduction of teaching personnel is a reality that no one can deny, and which is part of the problem. We saw an exponential expansion in numbers until the middle of the nineteen-nineties; then, the levels stabilized and, in parallel, the teaching outside the university never stopped growing. Thus, the proportion of high school graduates enrolling at the university decreased by 10% in the decade 1997-2007, dropping from 45% to 35% of all graduates.
I agree with part of this analysis, but the simple measure of the number of persons enrolling in university, even if it is not a secondary issue, can not be an adequate lever for our reflection on the question, because there are many reasons for this decrease. We have to guard against predicting catastrophe and decline, in linking things that are not necessarily linked. We have to stop having educational policies in this country work like an accordion. The baby boom that France has witnessed since 1998 will lead us, 10 to 15 years down the road, once again, to years with a considerable increase in the number of potential students. It is extremely important to plan for this future, to ask what sort of university our society needs.
We must not hide the consequences of the evolution of the job market. In the nineteen-seventies, one went to university to become cultivated, knowing that you could stop whenever you wanted, and get a job. In the year 1990, there was the first increase in white-collar unemployment, particularly noticeable among university graduates. Under these conditions, the professional career paths, nursing schools, pharmacy, medicine, were more attractive than the longer career paths that give a general training, and for which the chances of a job on graduation are less clearly identified. Another remark: the rapid drop in the number of high school graduates in the sciences who continued their studies in that direction. The phenomenon is general, and concerns not only the university. Many students in the grandes écoles for engineers chose careers in business and finance.
Even if certain of your opinions diverge, is it possible to sort out some points of agreement in the picture you propose of the present state of affairs?
We should be clear about our diagnosis. I am completely in agreement about the need to put an end to the politics of recruitment en accordéon. It’s a fact that the proportion of youth of ages 18-25 who follow some course of higher education continues to increase. In other words, it is not just a global demographic question that explains the drop in university numbers, but the negative appreciation of the universities by the students and their families. You must admit that this is a tragedy for the university. The sectors that come out the best are those that prepare for the professions, but, more than that, those that guard a professional monopoly: medicine, pharmacy on one hand, and law, on the other. Our colleagues in the legal profession were much afraid, some years ago, when we gave the School
for Political Sciences the right to give preparatory courses for the bar . We have known this situation already for a long time in the natural and human sciences, since, except in psychology, we have no monopoly in any professional sector. It’s the same in the sciences.
There has been a decrease in the number of teaching positions, but one of the main reasons for the lack of attractiveness for the first year courses at university is the rate of failure, itself a complex problem, for which the solution passes through an increase in availability of teaching staff. To look at the problems of the university in its interaction with higher education in general, OK, but I don’t see in what way this responds to the question of failure in the courses. For a long time we were put on the defensive over this question of numbers of positions. We can no longer avoid placing it on the table.
In the logic which is imposed on us today, professionalization has been reduced to a question of immediate employability. But the university has the duty not to reason only on the short term. We have been too timid, we have accepted the pronouncements of people who have a most superficial relation with the university tradition, who reason only in economic terms. We have rendered speakable positions that were unspeakable in France twenty years ago, such as the disdain expressed today by our government toward an entire section of university culture. This is hardly an epiphenomenon; it’s the translation of a cultural battle. We should bear in mind, all together, not to be on the defensive, but to construct propositions for the university whereby it can recover its sense of values.
The evaluation arrived at by François Vatin is unquestionable, but I don’t quite understand the relation of cause and effect that it implies. Since 1984 the number of students has almost multiplied by a factor of 4 (it climbed from about 650,000 to 2.5 million), while the university personnel increased by only 30%. This largely explains the orientation of a large number of students toward courses in which they can effectively benefit from closer supervision. And if one observes today a noticeable increase in failure at the level of first university degrees, the principal cause is inadequate pedagogical attention, with practice sessions of 30-35 students, and amphitheater lectures for 600. This is the issue in our mobilization. We refuse to be managers for this lack of means and personnel. We should remember that 600 million euros are offered to business enterprises as tax credits for research, while with only 1.5% of this sum we could create 1000 university positions.
Let’s not confuse the period up to the middle of the nineties, marked by an exponential increase in university staff, with that which followed, which was, in contrast, marked by reductions in most sectors, with the exception of medicine, pharmacy, and law. This reduction has accelerated in recent years. Doubtless the question of means is important, and the under-funding of the French university is a historic scandal that we have unfortunately tolerated for a long time. But paradoxically, the crisis arrives at a time when student numbers are decreasing. We should probably pose the question in another way, in particular with reference to the overall partition of national public resources, also regional resources, even local, between the universities and other structures for higher education. We should discuss this, particularly with respect to the regions. Taking into account the multiplication of private schools, we should also discuss the global question of the participation of families in the cost of higher education, not just the question of enrollment fees.
The debate continues — see part 6. (To appear soon)