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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les facultés soumises 
aux lois du marché

by Clotilde Mathieu

Universities subject to the rules of supply and demand

Translated Monday 11 January 2010, by Karen Grimwade and reviewed by Derek Hanson

Nicolas Sarkozy wants to use the Grand Emprunt (big loan) to present French university foundations with 10 billion euros, thus mirroring the funding model used by America’s now struggling universities.

In an effort to realise his dream of creating “the best universities in the world”, the French president hopes to duplicate the American-style knowledge-based economy. During a presentation of his decisions regarding the Grand Emprunt scheme in mid-December 2009, Sarkozy thus announced that only 10 “universities of excellence” will receive donations of around one billion euros. Additionally, this money will not be given directly to the universities themselves but invested by their foundations. Only the interest generated by investments – around 40 million euros – will be paid directly to the universities. Sarkozy insists that this plan represents a windfall for universities and will protect them from “arbitrary decisions taken by the government year after year”. Aside from sounding the death knell for the independence of French public research institutions, this method of funding universities via its foundations imposes a higher-education market based on competition and speculation. Rather than channelling their energy into new research discoveries, universities will be transformed into veritable war machines ready to do whatever it takes to win the favours of new donors. And the foundations, in their desire to make the most of their money, will devote themselves to finding the juiciest investments. For Emmanuel Saint-James, president of the action group Sauvons la Recherche, “this policy of university autonomy is nothing less than the government disengaging. It consists in telling the universities, ‘now you have your own funds, look after yourselves’”.

And yet the recession has taught us that, on the contrary, the private management of universities makes them vulnerable to economic conditions, as shown by the example of Harvard, America’s oldest and richest university and which has lost 30% of its assets on the financial markets. Its pre-recession capital of 37 billon dollars has shrunk to close to 25 billion. The resulting loss of resources led the university in June 2009 to lay off 300 people, freeze salaries and scrap certain development projects. American universities lost a total of 90 billion dollars on the stock market. For students this has meant a rise in state university tuition fees of 6.4% compared to last year, or 6,585 dollars per student. This brings to mind the words of Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, who, when struggling to justify the rise in tuition fees, declared: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!”

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