Readers may be aware of what happened the last time the government tangled with universities, in 1968, by de Gaulle - a violent student strike that led to a general strike of 10 million workers and the fall of the government. France has never really recovered from this caving in to socialist demands (which saw the minimum industrial wage increase 35% and an overall increase of 10%) as has been demonstrated a number times since, the most recently in 2005 when the whole place went pear shaped after two members of that eternally racially nondescript body of people known as 'youths' ran away from police into a power sub-station and were, unsurprisingly, electrocuted to death.
Forty years of ignoring its own national motto, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", has led to a fractured society made up of a small elite that run the place, a population whose major aspiration is to be a 35 hour per week public servant, and an unassimilated, uneducated immigrant class with a 50%+ unemployment rate. It's no exaggeration to suggest that the only thing that has prevented France from collapsing completely before now is, ironically, the one thing that the majority of the French population despises most - globalisation.
From The Times:
President Sarkozy is preparing for battle with France’s rebellious students and education establishment over his plan to revamp a crumbling university system.That France has a 41 per cent drop out rate from its higher education system yet still has the world's fifth-largest economy proves exactly one thing - education does not drive the economy, as I pointed out last week when discussing Australian Labor leader Kevin Rudd's plan to increase spending on keeping people at school.
Under threat of a summer student uprising, he told the heads of the country’s 85 universities that he was taking charge of a draft law that lays the groundwork for the first significant reform in decades.
He has shunted aside Valérie Pécresse, his Higher Education Minister, and François Fillon, the Prime Minister, to direct proceedings himself.
Students’ and teachers’ unions are planning protests of the kind that have repeatedly forced French governments to retreat if Mr Sarkozy tries to promote “un-French” practices in higher education. These include entrance selection, fees, private funding and competition among universities.
There is, however, public acceptance that, with their 41 per cent drop-out rate and abysmal world ranking, French universities are in dire need of reform. Laurence Parisot, the head of Medef, the French Employers’ Federation, calls them “the shame of our nation”.
Jean-Robert Pitte, the reform-minded president of the Sorbonne division of Paris University, said: “It is a miracle that France is still the world’s fifth-largest [economic] power considering its weak investment in higher education.”
One of the most flagrant ills is the neglect of the rigorously egalitarian facultés, or universities, in favour of a handful of highly selective grandes écoles.
The lavishly funded grandes écoles, which include Sciences Po, the political sciences institute in Paris, and the École Polytechnique, groom the brightest 4 per cent of students to run business, industry, the state and the media.
There are two basic factors required to drive economic growth - entrepreneurship and opportunity. Add in Liberty and you have the United States.
European 'elites' have spent the better part of the last century looking down their well-educated, intellectual noses at their American cousins and complained sniffily about their coarse, crass ways and unnatural focus on money. It sticks in their craw that these supposedly dumb, God-fearing hicks can be the most powerful nation, economically and militarily, in the world.
Middle-class parents yearn to place their offspring in such colleges and dread their relegation to la fac, including those with old names such as Sorbonne. About 1.5 million students are registered at the universities, which are open to all who hold a baccalauréat school-leavers’ certificate.Good luck to Sarkozy in taking on the establishment and dragging France into the 21st century. We'll know whether the French people are ready to make that move by whether there are mass riots around the country. I suspect that Sarkozy has read the political wind correctly and things will remain relatively calm.
Libération, the newspaper that was founded by Maoists in the 1968 student revolt, noted yesterday that the universities are so decrepit that some academics are ashamed to show foreign colleagues around their premises.
In something of a revolution, Mr Sarkozy and Mr Fillon attended universities and their Cabinet has fewer graduates from the elite grande écoles than any administration since the early 1960s. Mr Sarkozy regards the revamp of the antiquated education system as one of the most urgent, but also potentially explosive, tasks in his drive to revive France.
“You cannot keep on saying that the 21st will be the knowledge century and leave our university system in a state of neglect because it is too politically dangerous to reform,” the President told MPs from his centre-right camp last week.
His Bill, due to be published next week, will grant self-management to universities that wish it. This will enable them to manage assets and budgets, recruit staff and design courses – all of which have long been controlled by the state. Mr Sarkozy wants the universities to create partnerships with research institutions and seek finance in addition to the €50 billion (£34 billion) that he has promised over five years. Student representation on university boards is to be heavily cut.
Most of university chiefs favour the reforms in outline but they have told Mr Sarkozy that they are alarmed over what they see as his haste.
The main unions are furiously opposed, seeing autonymous universities as the “Americanisation” of French traditions. “They want to impose on us an antidemocratic system that will confiscate . . . the values of collegiality and equality,” Jean Fabri, the secretary-general of Snesup-FSU, the biggest lecturers’ union, said yesterday.
“The Government wants to set the universities in competition among themselves while relinquishing its responsibilities,” he said. “It’s an aberrant and dangerous vision.”
Bruno Julliard, a students’ union leader whose 2005 protest movement ended the political career of Dominique de Villepin, the former Prime Minister, wrote to Mr Sarkozy telling him that he faced an all-out battle. “Do not doubt our determination,” Mr Julliard said.
The Socialist Opposition has been showing confusion, deploring Mr Sarkozy’s methods but accepting the need for reform.
François Hollande, the party leader, said: “Everyone should get together to put French universities into the category of excellence without rushing and incomprehension.”
Long learning curve
— France has about 1.5 million higher education students, 94 per cent of whom attend the 85 universities, plus the vocational colleges, which are open with no selection
— The other 6 per cent attend the grandes écoles – highly selective establishments for the elite. Two years of post school study are required before taking the competitive entrance tests
— About 40 per cent of all who register as university students leave with no degree or diploma
— The state spends €6,700 (£4,500) a year on each university student, below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average, and €13,000 per grande école student
— Only one French institution is in the Top 20 of The Times Higher Education Supplement 2006 international ranking: l’École Normale Supérieure, a Paris grande école
— In the 2006 world rankings by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, the best French university, Paris VI, was 45th. Only three are in the Top 200, compared with four British universities in the first 26. (France contests the Shanghai criteria)
— President Sarkozy read law at Paris University and did not attend a grande école, unlike most recent French leaders