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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: À quoi doit servir l’université ?

by Jacqueline Sellem, animator of the round table

What rôle for the Universities ? (3)

Translated Sunday 14 June 2009, by Henry Crapo

Part 3 : Continuation of the Debate. [1]

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 .

Part 3 (discussion continues)

Creation of competition between universities, starting with the grandes écoles, then amongst the many schools preparing for the various professions, especially the private schools in this sector, has greatly increased in recent years. Isn’t the government trying to reorient the universities toward this environment by privatizing them bit by bit?

Jean-Louis Fournel:
The deputy in charge of getting the LRU bill to the floor
of the assembly, Benoist Apparu, has explicitly said that the problem of the French university is its insufficient adaptation to the economic world. We see what he has in mind. We don’t accept that they impose in the university sector those criteria that prevail in the economic field. Furthermore, don’t forget that according to the WTO and OECD [2], whose directives are very clear on the subject, knowledge is a merchandise like any other. With respect to the grandes écoles the question is a bit different. They are a special feature in France, places where the entire corps of directors of the state and the economy is trained, but where, with some few exceptions, little research is done. The paradox is that we ask the university to be a place for producing research, but we organize a brain drain of the best students toward the grandes écoles. No government, either of the right or the left, has figured out how to treat this problem.

Frédérique Bassino:
It’s not really fair play to place in parallel the results of the universities with those of the grandes écoles, to which one has sent the best students, and to whom one has provided the best conditions for study. In any case, no matter what comparisons are made, the university is the poor member of the higher educational family.

François Vatin:
We shouldn’t fix our attention too much on the grandes écoles. They are the tree that hides the forest. We frequently evoke these great historical institutions in French higher education in order to be able to say that we shouldn’t break a system that works. But behind the grandes écoles there has developed a private sector of higher education, not well known, and with instances of great mediocrity. The transformation of the university imposed in the framework of present reforms is surely worrisome, but, to my mind, the reorientation of the university as an institution is even moreso, both in terms of the quality of higher education and with respect to social equality, the access to training.

Isabelle Bruno:
There is not yet what one would properly call privatization. But there is an evident will, much more insidious, to make university administration conform to principles of business management, under the label of governance. (We find this also in the hospitals.) Also, there is the practice of associating other economic actors, notably the MEDEF [3] in the hierarchy of university management, in their boards of directors, in order to breath into them a spirit of business enterprise.

Frédérique Bassino:
With the disengagement of the state and the transfer of costs to the university, we can expect there will be multiple appeals for funds from the private sector. In the short term, an increase in enrollment fees, and the setting up of systems of student loans, risk becoming an incendiary actuality.

François Vatin:
Privatization, and what one might call the disacademization of higher education are already present. Only 15% of high school graduates in science continue their study of sciences at university. The others leave for preparatory classes for entry in the grandes écoles (more and more frequently opened up in private establishments), or enter the first year of medicine (bearing in mind that, in order to pass the competitive entrance examination, many enroll, in parallel, in a private school), or finally enter the IUT [4], which are public, or the BTS [5], which are also often opened in private high schools. In brief, it is not sufficient to defend the values of the universities in their own context; one must also ask what is the place of the university in the broad spectrum of post-high school teaching in France, keeping in mind that it is being rapidly marginalized.

The debate continues — see part 4.

[1See also the introduction (part 1) and the opening of the debate (part 2), which appeared earlier.

[2World Trade Organization, and The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

[3The French employers’ union, the principal organization providing political representation for business interests.

[4Technological institutes established at a beginning university level.

[5Translator’s note: This sample promotional web site gives a fair idea of what is involved.

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