Phi Beta Cons

Sarkozy To Take On Higher Education

Quel merveil! It just may be that recently President Nicolas Sarkozy may try to overhaul the heretofore untouchable institution of French higher education. Count on hordes of students, who are already organizing resistance, to mount the barricades!
The
Associated Press reports that campuses are “shaping up as the first battleground for Sarkozy’s grand plans for reform,” in order that France “recapture its economic luster and key role in international affairs.” The AP article weaves together insights about his agenda with an analysis of the state of affairs at the Sorbonne and an interview with its president:

The Sorbonne has no cafeteria, no student newspaper, no varsity sports, no desk-side electric plugs for laptops. France’s most renowned university also costs next-to-nothing to attend, and admission is open to every high school graduate…
Sarkozy says this picture is emblematic of much that is wrong with France…
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said this week that a bill on granting universities more autonomy would be presented to parliament in July, when schools are closed and potential protesters are on vacation…
High dropout rates, antiquated resources and funding cuts have so plagued the Sorbonne, like universities across France, that its president, Jean-Robert Pitte, is calling for an overhaul of the university system. He wants to make admission selective and sharply increase tuition, measures critics call “Americanization.”
French universities “don’t correspond to the needs of the economy, to French society, and even less to Europe and the world,” Pitte said in an interview…
Considering that months of student protests last spring were sparked by a minor labor reform, Pitte’s proposals risk setting off another crisis.
The challenges start with egalitarian rules that govern French universities. Imposed after the student and worker uprising of 1968, they offer any student with a high school diploma a free education. Financial barriers were to be leveled with generous grants.
Nearly 40 years later, the free and democratic universities are producing far fewer graduates than their much more costly counterparts in the United States…
Pitte says the French system just produces dropouts. Forty-five percent of Sorbonne students do not complete their first year, and 55 percent do not earn a degree. Without entrance standards, there is a “selection-by-failure” that squanders resources and professors’ time on students who “have no real chance of success,” he said…
French students…vehemently oppose change.
“Education is a public service and should be open to everyone regardless of their economic situation,” said Simon Vacheron, a history student who says the solution is more public money.
Many defend the system as a true meritocracy.
“It allows everyone to take their chances,” said Maxime Lonlas, president of the Sorbonne’s largest student union. Instead of being judged on past accomplishments, each student “can be judged on their performance,” he added.
But Pitte says annual tuition fees of less than $400, a sum that is often waived, mean there’s no financial penalty for failure.
There’s even a “phantom student” phenomenon where as many as 10 percent of students on the rolls never see the inside of a lecture hall, having enrolled to get free health benefits and student discounts on everything from train travel to movie tickets…
“We’re the street-sweepers of the education system,” Pitte said [referring to the fact that campuses such as the Sorbonne take in the vast majority of students, those who fail to gain admission to the elite grandes ecoles].
Low tuition also means universities are starved for money and short on the services that are taken for granted in the U.S. The Sorbonne has no alumni association, robbing it of essential donations. And…corporate funding is prohibited…[Thus] the universities are crumbling…
Sarkozy has included university reform in his four top priorities to be passed during a parliamentary session this summer. His proposals…would see [universities’] budgets increase by 50 percent.
Pitte wants to limit the numbers of students in disciplines that have few job opportunities upon graduation, and introduce annual tuition fees of $4,000.
“Nobody should be prevented from doing university studies,” said Pitte. But to let students who aren’t cut out for it into the system “is criminal.”

How Mssrs. Sarkozy and Pitte envisage academic reform per se — issues such as the value of a core curriculum and performance-based assessment of student and teaching/research performance — is at this point unclear. It is to be hoped they do not merely throw money at the system and waste a rare opportunity to strengthen academic quality, thus setting an example to the rest of the world. In any case, as Bruce Kessler notes, we U.S. higher-education reformers should keep an eye on and try to influence reform efforts in France and elsewhere in the world.