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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 ? (6)

Translated Thursday 18 June 2009, by Henry Crapo

Part 6 : 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 .

Jean-Louis Fournel:
We are in agreement concerning most of the analysis of the problem. The movement Sauvons l’université [2] was born from the refusal to permit the pauperization of the university, but also from a refusal to permit the concentration of power in the hands of a few, chiefly the university presidents. But it appeared that the same problem was arising also in the secondary schools, with new prerogatives accorded to the junior and high school principals, via the creation of public establishments for primary education. The objective was to give the heads of establishments the right to hire, without limit, contractual personnel, thus on precarious jobs, and to grant to administrative councils, composed in part of representatives of the economic and political world, an autonomy for partial management of the schools. This perspective is an absolute catastrophe for the level of education of our children in this country, from kindergarten to university. What is taking shape has a global character and great coherence. We must pay attention to this.

What subjects for reflection and courses of action do you envisage for the coming period?

Jean-Louis Fournel:
The movement has been going on now for four months. This is really the first time such a thing has happened. Whatever be the results of our demands, there is one advance in our position: the fact that our community has begun to think as a potential actor in its own transformation. It is no longer subject to the logic that has been dominant these past 15 years, a sort of passivity in face of reforms that have been imposed in little stormy periods every two or three years. This is extremely positive, and permits us to rethink matters in a more effective way, because, over and above the ideological analysis one can perform, the fundamental problem is that one doesn’t reform the university in opposition to the university community. Mme Pécresse [3]
will doubtless leave for other pastures, but the university will stay put: we had better find the solutions.

Isabelle Bruno:
This reflection will much benefit if it is carried out on a European scale. This will be the case, in particular, this Saturday 30 May, at 104 rue d’Aubervilliers [4], during a day of European encounters organized by the collective Printemps 2010, which brings together some fifteen labor unions and associations. The theme is For a Europe of Knowledge, with teacher-researchers from Great Britain, Germany, Italy and Greece who will report on their situation and their national mobilization. The idea is to spark a citizen debate on the future that we wish for higher education and research in Europe, to exchange militant experiences and prepare a European counter-summit for March 2010, to make our voices heard on the European, even international, scene.

Frédérique Bassino:
This European dimension is one of the very important novelties in these university mobilizations. It already started to take shape in the preparations for the counter-summit in Louvain and the summit in Turin. Links were made and we were able to conclude that the questions raised in France are likewise raised in other European countries. Many of these countries have already seen mobilizations of students and university personnel. I’m thinking mainly of Greece and Italy. We need today to give life to a concertation between different movements in order to gain ground on basic questions, such as that of the university.

François Vatin:
The way in which the university community, for the first time, has taken matters in hand, and has tried to reflect on the situation in the French universities, is very meaningful. The call that we have launched with our Manifest is written in this spirit. They used often to reproach the universities for their negative attitude. Now we have taken up the challenge, gathering together around the table persons of extremely diverse ideological backgrounds, possessing different opinions, even concerning the LRU law. We came to the conclusion that it was possible to arrive at a common diagnostic and at some propositions that we have launched for public debate. Surely we will have to wage a battle against a certain anti-academic ideology, developed with astonishing cynicism by the present national political powers, but we will also have to win a more general battle of opinion in order to make clear the value of university studies. We have to hold onto the two ends of the cord, between academic values and access to jobs. For this, I prefer to look at the problem from the other end. What type of training do we wish, in France, for those who will occupy positions for social actions of all types? And I think we can agree on the necessity for a veritable policy of higher education in France, something we do not have at present.

Isabelle Bruno:
If we refer to the progress report on the general revision of public policy, we find clear lines of direction and a table of objectives clearly enunciated by the minister of research and higher education. It’s a management version of how to pilot the universities, but it remains a public policy. We must therefore resist this managerial mode of governance that lies at the heart of neo-liberal politics.

François Vatin:
It doesn’t apply to the entirety of higher education. In particular, it doesn’t deal with the certification of those institutions that deliver diplomas or with the qualifications that one may demand of persons who receive students after high school.

Jean-Louis Fournel:
If it doesn’t deal with those matters, it’s because it doesn’t want to. We must say that this policy is that promoted by the OECD for twenty years already, as made explicit in the texts of the WTO. In this respect it is tragic that the university question is not present in the campaign for the European elections. It’s for this reason, in order to bring its contribution to this vital debate on the university in the European context, that the SLU has decided to make public a position paper, addressed to citizens, to political parties and candidates in the European election [5].

Frédérique Bassino:
Among the various evils from which the university suffers, there is a lack of means. Any veritable policy of higher education passes by the allotment to the university of the means with which to accomplish its mission.

(end of the debate)

They said ...

Hugues Portelli, senator UMP, professor of political science at Paris-II, in Le Figaro of 13 Feb, 2009.

"The project outlined in this decree only draws conclusions from a law that reinforced the power of university presidents and replaced the much criticized Jacobinism of the state by a local Jacobinism that respects differences between disciplines: it reinforces the tendency, already at work, toward clientelism and localism."

Franck Lessay and Yves Zarka, professors at the Sorbonne, in Le Figaro, 1 Feb, 2009.

"The president of the university is a sort of company president governing his university with an administrative council. In doing things this way, they have confused two bodies whose separation assured the liberty and independence of universities, which are not privileges inherited from the past, but the conditions for the accomplishment of their missions of production and transmission of knowledge."

Philippe Meirieu, professor of educational science, Lyon-II, cited in the Journal du Dimanche

"The model of a mass university, with à la carte education and crowded amphitheaters, is acknowledged to be a total failure. No one wants it any more. What the parents and students want is a continuation of the mode of study in high school, with reduced class sizes."

Press review

Cynthia Guttman, November 200, in Le Courrier de l’UNESCO

"Higher education is a frontier outpost of this commercialization, ever since the establishment of close links with industry, and up to the conquest of teaching. But the new technologies are not alone in this responsibility. As Motoyo Kamiya (of the OECD) emphasizes, a vast reform of the public educational sector is under way, oriented toward and by the market. ... In a number of countries, the rules which regulate the opening of a school are weakened, and the management of public establishments passes into private hands."

Laurent Bonelli, in Le Monde diplomatique, 8 May 2009,

"The progress proclaimed by the minister and her colleagues resembles rather a regression, of which the students from working classes will be the first victims. It will be erroneous to think that the violent contradiction offered by the economic crisis to neo-liberal theories has dampened the ardor of its defenders. It suffices to glance through the recent report of the OECD, which applauds the present evolution and calls for an enlarged autonomy for universities, over and above that achieved in 2007."

[1See also the introduction (part 1) the opening of the debate (part 2),
and its continuations
(part 3)
, (part 4),
and (part 5),
which appeared earlier.

[2"Save the university".

[3Valérie Pécresse, minister for research and higher education

[4address of the Artistic Establishment of the City of Paris, established in a large buillding originally used as mortuary.

[5This text is freely available (in French) on the Mediapart site.