27 Jun 2007   |   News

Sarkozy targets research with university reforms

France’s new president aims to trigger the modernisation of its public research system with far-reaching reform of the university system.

Research in his sight: newly elected Nicholas Sarkozy

Politics is about symbols. So, when last week, photos of 500 PhD students wearing traditional gowns and white scarves for a graduation ceremony at University Pierre & Marie Curie in Paris were splashed across the French media, it forcefully made the point that French universities are facing the winds of change. Since graduation ceremonies were abolished after the student-led revolution of 1968, graduating in France has been a low-key affair, with a simple list of graduands replacing politically incorrect ceremonies.

The back-to-the-roots demonstration at Pierre & Marie Curie neatly encapsulates what newly elected French president Nicolas Sarkozy has claimed is “his single most important reform” of putting the entire university system back on its feet.

If he succeeds, it will also give a massive push to a French public research system that has lost ground to international competition.

It was no coincidence that the media circus at Pierre & Marie Curie happened at the same time as the most far-reaching reform of universities in years was unveiled by the new higher education minister, Valerie Pecresse.

As soon as the details of the reform were known a defiant vote was taken in the National Council of Higher Education and Research (CNESER), a consultative body of the various stakeholders. Meanwhile, the National Scientific Researchers’ Union, one of the main labour unions in public research, issued a statement claiming that, “the government wanted to transfer all researchers from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) [government-funded research institutes] to the universities”.

These two protests persuaded Sarkozy to put the brakes on. While the university reform was supposed to be presented at the 27 June ministers’ council – the last step before it goes to parliament for a vote – the French presidency announced it was postponing the process one week in order to consult - or more likely convince – students’ and professors’ unions of the value of the reform.

A dead end?

Does this mean the long overdue reform of the French universities is going to hit the same dead end as all previous attempts at change since 1968?  

It is unlikely. Of course, reforming French universities is “hard and perilous” as Valerie Pecresse puts it. And Nicolas Sarkozy will still have fresh memories of how attempts to reform the CPE (Contrat Premiere Embauche, a looser working contract for first time entrants on the job market) terminated the political ambitions of the then French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, last year.

But no one doubts the need to reform France’s 82 universities. As the OECD observes in a survey of France published this week, “Educational expenditures per student at primary and secondary level are high compared with other OECD countries, but low when it comes to higher education.” It recommends higher tuition fees. However, Pecresse is promising to raise government spending per student from €7,000 to €10,000.

With the issue of fees defused, other details of the reform do not look controversial enough to trigger massive protests. Compromises are being floated and seem reachable, even in the short week Sarkozy’s government is offering for further discussions.

For example, the central point of the reform, to give universities the ownership of their own assets and their presidents the autonomy to manage, recruit and pay professors a market rate instead of being tied to national pay structures, is criticised only because the new system is voluntary.

Because universities will not be forced to become autonomous some university presidents fear it will generate big discrepancies between campuses. But they don’t contest the competition logic behind the reform and simply want the new law to require autonomy for all within five years.

A question of governance

The second issue of concern is the governance of universities. Even the smallest university board has no fewer than 60 members even though some have just 3,000 students. The government wants to reduce the number to 20, which will mean fewer student representatives.  Unions are asking for boards with between 20 and 30 members. The bargaining might finish at around 28, say insiders. But while this haggling has gone on, the fact that managers of private companies will, for the first time, be invited to join university boards has not raised an eyebrow.

The third point of contention may be harder to smooth over. Provided they have graduated from school, French students have a right to go to university. Selection happens only during the fifth year. The reform seeks to advance selection one year, to entry to the master’s courses. It seems that, Sarkozy has dropped this proposal after discussions with students’ unions on 26 June. The concession is allowing giving union leaders to claim victory and back away from further change.

Do these compromises means the reform will be emasculated when Parliament discusses it in July? It does not look like it. With a 68 per cent approval rating in the opinion polls and a landslide victory in the election, Sarkozy has some political capital to spend. In addition, the opposition leader, socialist François Hollande, is not contesting the reform itself, but the fact that the process is being piloted by the President and not the Prime Minister.

The main target

In the circumstances, the reform is likely to survive relatively unscathed – with profound consequences not only for the universities but also for the French public research system, which many believe to be Sarkozy’s main target.

Today public sector research is divided between universities and public bodies like CNRS and INSERM. Universities employ 56,000 research-teachers while public organisations have 18,000 scientists on their payroll. With the exception of large-scale research centres such as particle accelerators, most of these scientists work together with the universities, in around 1,000 mixed departments.

With their new autonomy, university president and boards will be able to recruit public organisation researchers for projects they define. Researchers coming from CNRS or INSERM will keep their status. But over time questions will undoubtedly emerge about the differences in status and pay between university and public organisation researchers who are sharing the same labs.

Does Sarkozy this will ultimately help transform public institutes into agencies like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health in the US? His science advisor, geneticist Arnold Munnich, has made it quite clear. He declared in the newspaper Le Monde recently that, “the university should become autonomous and that the French research institutions should become [grant-giving] agencies”.

If Sarkozy is forced only to lose one week to help the unions save face, it would be a small price to pay for a reform with deep consequences.

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