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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 ? (4)

Translated Monday 15 June 2009, by Henry Crapo

Part 4 : 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 .

The government, referring to the Shanghai classification [2] of educational institutions, invokes the problem of competitivity and favors setting the universities in competition with one another ...

Isabelle Bruno:
The French government hasn’t invented a thing. They’re picking up a belief shared by all the adepts of neo-liberalism, or what they prefer to call "the new public management," meaning that you don’t become competitive until you engage in competition. Now you assign to universities a competitive objective, however absurd it may be, and they must prove their capacity to survive in an international competition scored in terms of prizes awarded. In particular, you must bend to the scoring criteria in order to leap forward [3] into the top classification. This is the reasoning behind the policy of poles (poles of competitivity, poles of research and of higher education, but also poles of hospital services), following the industrial practice of fusion, of critical mass, and of international visibility. The competitive university should be visible in a globalized space, and must distinguish itself by its performance, by its capacity to attract capital both financial (via foundation grants and increased tuition) and human (the best brains, Nobel prizes, teacher-researchers who "publish", and students who finish their studies "quickly".) The unequal reorganization of the territories is a response to the demands of the OECD and is present already in our neighboring European countries. Educational and scientific policies are thus aligned according to the practice of business innovation, with the objective of establishing a knowledge market.

Jean-Louis Fournel:
I am entirely in agreement with this analysis. With respect to the famous Shanghai classification, we always forget to recall that it was set up in order to facilitate the choice of a foreign university by Chinese students, to continue their studies. It is unfavorable to the human and social sciences and literature. It is based on a conception of entirely quantitative evaluation, one which penalized cooperation. Albert Fert explains that, since he participates in an interdisciplinary unit of the CNRS, his Nobel prize counts, according to the Shanghai criteria, half as many points for his university. We can multiply the perverse effects of this type of classification, also remembering that, on the whole, only that research reported in English was taken into account.

Frédérique Bassino:
The role of the university is also to transmit knowledge. How should one measure the competitivity of a university that, recruiting in a relatively unfavorable environment, trains its students to a level that permits their insertion into the working world? Our leaders should also reflect on the experience of the French mathematical school, one of the most prestigious on the planet, as measured by the number of Fields medals, the equivalent of a Nobel prize for mathematics. In the magazine of the CNRS, the scientific director for mathematics explains that this French school is founded on a policy of networking, which irrigates all the laboratories in the country. This is quite the contrary of competition.

Isabelle Bruno:
Competitivity as applied to educational and scientific activities is nonsense, once one realizes the social function of the university in training its citizens, of freeing individuals from economic and political powers. We shouldn’t attack the criteria for classification, but rather their reason for being.

François Vatin:
But we risk defending the spirit of the universities for an increasingly smaller fraction of the public who, moreover, find themselves there almost by default. Our debate circles around this question of the university, while it should concern the public service of higher education in France. This is the reason that, in the first item of the call [4] we propose the creation of a veritable ministry of higher education to have cognizance of the entire area. We have no intention of erasing all that has been accomplished over a period of years, but we must have finished with the idea of a minister of higher education who has an eye only on the universities, in the strict sense of the term. In France, in order to set up shop as a butcher, you have to have the CAP certification, but in order to open a private school of higher education, you need no certification at all. We are faced with a rampant privatization, hidden and archaic, of higher education.

The debate continues — see part 5.

[1See also the introduction (part 1) the opening of the debate (part 2),
and its continuation
(part 3)
which appeared earlier.

[2Translator’s sarcastic remark: This site, from the School of Mines in Paris,
provides some insight into the Shanghai ranking of educational establishments. I note with amusement that Duke and Harvard each got half a point for the degrees obrained by G. Richard Wagoner, Jr., once CEO of General Motors. Do they lose their half points now that the company is in bankruptcy and the CEO has resigned at the request of the White House?

[3the original French version speaks of the peloton de tête, the first large batch of riders who stick close together in order to have the same time recorded for the bicycle race.

[4The Manifest for the Rebuilding of the French University which was signed by 4,888 people since the 13th of May.

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