Guttenplan, D. (2011) France Reinvesting in Universities, Education Minister Says New York Times, May 22

This article, an interview with Valérie Pécresse, the minister for higher education and research of France, suggests that the French government’s HE policy is in sharp contrast to the British government’s. (See The calamitous state of higher education in England and Wales and U.K. public universities become privatized while the banks become state-funded).

Some of the main points:

  • priority to teaching and innovation while integrating research and teaching: Pécresse:

First there is a political choice: to give priority to teaching and innovation. But if we wanted to give this priority, then we had to reform the universities. Why? Because we have a very separated system. [She is referring to the elite Grandes Ecoles, and to the separation of research and teaching in different organizations in France]

  • more flexibility in program choice, to build on student success rather than failure. Pécresse:

we have selection by failure. We have pupils who have been scarred for life because they failed. And they would not have failed if we had taken proper care of them. In medicine, we take 20 percent after the first year.

  • more investment in universities: Pécresse

Forty percent of our real estate was out of date. So we are going to rebuild the campuses, starting this spring. And then we have an investment plan for the future, that we put in place during the [financial] crisis, and although the crisis arrived, this is €22 billion [about $31 billion] for research and innovation — a big increase over the next 10 years

  • low tuition fees: Pécresse

[in British education, … the number of university places is being reduced, and students have been asked to pay higher tuition fees]. It’s not the French model. I’m not opposed to tuition fees for lifelong learning. Lifelong learning has to come into the universities, but when it does someone has to pay for it. But for first degrees the French model is quasi-free [French undergraduates pay tuition of €174 a year.] This is our national culture. This is what we pay taxes for…..So I stand up for a model where tuition fees are not high. We were so late in investing in universities. We were so late in reforming universities. And it’s difficult to do reform without financial incentives.

For me, these are welcome changes to a French higher education system that was badly in need of reform. Too many students were failing and there was little accountability. However, the need for reform has not been used, as in Britain, to attack the model of public higher education. As Valérie Pécresse says: It was really important that universities understand in France — and French people understand — that reform is not always punitive.


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