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The French Association of Political Science Job Applicants (ANCMSP) has been monitoring French research and higher education policies for over fifteen years. In the past few years, its work shows that governmental reforms are seriously damaging universities and academia, both of which were already suffering from severe underfunding within the dual French system, a centuries-old system where well-endowed but research-less ‘grandes écoles’ prevail over ‘la fac’.

French universities are currently facing difficulties on so many levels that their situation has developed into an open crisis. Unsurprisingly, governance over careers and diplomas are amongst the most salient issues, as current reforms drop century-old systems that hinged on peer-regulated committees and national coordination for competition-through-‘autonomy’ in an academic quasi-market. The fundamental element of concern remains, however, the insufficient resources of French universities. Governmental rhetoric might tell otherwise, yet the drastic retrenchment of state resources to universities is clearly hurting institutions that were already short on manpower and money. Both neo-managerialism and resource withdrawal are well documented in a recent comprehensive analysis by Le Gall and Soulié.

Since 2003, and even more since Nicolas Sarkozy’s arrival in office in 2007, the organization of scientific research in France has been targeted by a frenzy of reforms, with constitutive elements of French research policy being scrapped without any substantial consultation. Ironically enough, the so-called “autonomous universities” legislation passed under the Sarkozy presidency consists primarily in the destruction of pre-existing regulatory frameworks. These reforms were conceived by academics and university executives. The new managerial regime expects university presidents to engage in short-term rent seeking as well as to secure high rankings in international league tables, which actually supplant peer-based assessments. Our monitoring shows that the resulting increase in competition among French universities is detrimental to students and researchers alike, and that the definition of ‘academic excellence’ as understood by governmental elites will gradually become the exclusive monopoly of only a small cluster of institutions.

Current reforms are also strengthening a handful of ‘independent evaluation agencies’ in charge of allocating what is left of the (comparatively small) French R&D budget agencies operating at arm’s length from the state executive. Academics, who used  to make decisions over teaching and research, are now facing the discretionary power of agencies and university presidents, along with increased administrative constraints, operating under the leadership of managers with little professional expertise. Tragicomically enough, current policies are also pushing for ‘new’ evaluation strategies such as ‘publish or perish,’ even though the rest of the world is trying to run away from such blunt, and ultimately pointless, assessment techniques.   One can turn to Chamaillou’s thorough – as well as hilarious – dissection of French research benchmarks to get the picture, which is indeed depressingly farcical.   The role of the European Union in promoting such ‘soft coercion’ tools in academia should be mentioned in any larger portrait of current developments.

Yet again, current reform efforts are only aggravating what has been wrong for decades with French universities: budgets. Underfunding is well captured in this video, which shows how derelict French universities currently are, even when they qualify as first-tier research institutions.  Indeed, the financial limbo of French universities affects virtually all institutions of higher education, even those with Nobel Prize Winners and other forms of academic excellence—as witnessed by the appalling state of the Paris-based ‘Jussieu’ campus . The dire state of world-famous venues like the ‘Sorbonne’ or ‘Paris VIII’ are only one aspect of a general state of decay.  Without tenured positions, graduates on (underpaid) temporary contracts are massively involved in university teaching and research, a solution that the United Kingdom is only starting to consider as a consequence of the last economic recession. While part time employees look for adjunct positions that last barely a few months, tenured faculty are resorting to taking up the growing part of administrative work that universities cannot afford to fund at all. All aspects of academia end up sacrificed in these desperate attempts to make the current system work.

Last year’s massive movement against governmental reforms was nothing more than a legitimate display of protest by all stakeholders – researchers, teachers, administrators and the ever-growing “precarious” scholars recently described in an enlightening report   – to ensure that higher education remains both accessible and democratic, and that French scientific research maintains its high quality. At the moment,  however, one can only be pessimistic about these goals.


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