What makes students jump

All week, student protests have continued in France, in conjunction with a much larger and more economically important strike by transportation workers. Liberation has an article that juxtaposes “what the law says” with “what students fear.” It’s the clearest introduction to the politics of the confrontation I’ve seen so far – in spite of everything that it probably leaves out about the sociopolitical context. Let me summarize the major points of contention:

  1. State disengagement. The law mandates that universities manage their own budgets (a major innovation in the French context); it increases the power of the university president and diminishes the power of currently-existing administrative councils. Students fear that this is just an excuse for the state to abandon universities to their own devices, decreasing state funding for higher education.
  2. More social selection. The law mandates “l’orientation active,” which is defined as “aider le lycéen à faire un choix d’orientation éclairé,” i.e. helping the lyceén to make an enlightened choice of their program of study. Students view this as a process of “sélection,” which corresponds loosely to what in American universities is called “selectivity,” that is, the screening process by which some students are chosen over others. And they view this as a disavowed means of reproducing social inequality. (See also a longer analysis of social selection at café pédagogique.)
  3. Increased registration fees. Official statements to the contrary, students say it’s obvious that in the absence of state funding, universities will look to their students for financial resources.
  4. Closing of fields of study. The law says nothing about this, but the worry is that universities will be inclined to get rid of un-profitable fields. Interestingly, it seems to be students in human sciences and languages who are the most worried about the law in general. Also, Libération comments that:

    Derrière cette crainte, il y a aussi le refus de la professionnalisation des filières, des licences pros trop liées aux besoins du marché, et la volonté de défendre une université lieu de transmission du savoir.

    Behind this fear, there’s also a refusal of the professionalization of academic fields, of professional degrees too closely linked to the needs of the market, and the will to defend a university as a place of knowledge transmission.

    The whole problem of the university’s general societal role comes up here, and of its dependence on, or partial autonomy from, its economic circumstances. Even in the U.S., there are periodic conflicts over whether college education should be directly vocationally oriented. It’s remarkable that French students, not just professors (whose self-interest is obvious in this context), would defend the right to an economically irrelevant field like philosophy.

  5. The two-speed university. According to the law, each campus will be treated equally. Students suspect, however, that there will be increasing differentiation between major Parisian research universities and small provincial teaching campuses.

Last month, some visiting French anthropologists suggested that I look into the workings of the Pécresse law as it takes effect. Along these lines, I’m tempted to think of this Libération article as a set of five empirical hypotheses whose truth will emerge over the coming years.