French universities funded according to performance

Liberation reports today that a new report from the French Senate “advocates a system of State budget distribution to universities depending ‘on performance criteria,’ notably that of student job placement.” The current system of budget allocation is “criticized by numerous actors for its unreadable, opaque and complex character.” (Incidentally, the total sum allocated to universities is, by American standards, absurdly low: 8.5 billion euros.) The aim of the new system would be to “restore a greater equity among universities” and to encourage “further efficiency in the utilization of their means.”

I’m still far from understanding French university finances, but it’s clear, as I described last fall, that much of the struggle over the Loi Pécresse has to do with its efforts to decentralize university financing. French universities have moved partly to a contract-based financing system since 1988 (see Christine Musselin‘s work), but is still nothing like the decentralized American system, where some states fund less than 10% of their purportedly public universities’ budgets. At any rate, it’s easy to see this move as a step in the direction of Britain’s universities, which are often viewed as the cutting edge of Thatcherite “marketization” and national auditing. Too soon, of course, to see whether France is really moving permanently in that direction.

The comments on this news story reflect a wonderful spectrum of views about the nature and role of the university. Harry70 starts out by saying:

“I completely agree with this measure. The young will think twice before jumping into studies completely disconnected from reality. It wasn’t not fair that certain people undertook long and useless studies, paid for by the kind taxpayer.”

[Je suis completement d’accord avec cette mesure. Les jeunes vont reflechir deux fois avant de se lancer dans des etudes completement deconnectes de la realite. Ce n’etait pas juste que certains entreprenaient des etudes longs et inutiles, payees par le gentil contribuable.]

Soon thereafter, Jules comments the reverse:

“Money, always money… we’ll favor educations that pay off (finance, etc.), to the detriment of the university’s only true function, the transmission of knowledge. History, archaeology, philosophy… so many disciplines that make men of us, whose value these messieurs, obsessed with profit, have never understood. There’s more to life than money! It’s not stock options that the Greeks left us, as far as I know! But for that, we must put an end to this grand french myth: no, the university has never been about joining the labor market. There are other paths for that: engineering schools, bts, iut… The university is there to assure the continuity of a human activity other than immediate profits: knowledge of the world and of oneself. With people like that, it’s not surprising that France is lagging behind in properly academic disciplines.”

[L’argent, toujours l’argent… On va favoriser les formations qui rapportent (finances, etc.) au détriment de la seule véritable fonction de l’université, la transmission du savoir. L’histoire, l’archéologie, la philosophie… Autant de disciplines qui font de nous des hommes, et dont ces messieurs, obsédés par le profit, n’ont jamais compris la valeur. Il y a autre chose que l’argent dans la vie! Ce sont sont pas des stock options que nous ont transmis les Grecs, que je sache! Mais pour cela, il faudrait mettre fin à ce grand mythe français: non, l’université n’a jamais servi à s’insérer dans le marché du travail. Il y a d’autre filières pour cela: écoles d’ingénieur, bts, iut… L’université est là pour assurer la pérennité d’une activité humaine autre que le profit immédiat : la connaissance du monde et de soi-même. Avec des gens comme ça, pas étonnant que la France soit à la traîne dans les disciplines proprement universitaires.]

Then Yawn responds:

“Jules: way off the mark
The university, descendent of Ancient Greece, serves not to find an occupation but to transmit knowledge. That’s very interesting, but a little ridiculous — in ancient Greece, citizens could learn without needing to look for work because they didn’t need to because they had slaves. I hope that isn’t the model Jules is proposing to us. Regarding the statement that there are other places besides the university to learn an occupation: it’s completely absurd. First because I don’t know many people who can let themselves go to the fac [ie, the faculty of arts and sciences] without needing to work. Furthermore, because some occupations are only taught in the university (law, medicine). That said, to pass the law faculty, it’s true that one may wonder whether one learns an occupation, given that education there is little oriented towards practice.”

[@Jules: à côté de la plaque
L’université, descendante de la Grece Antique, ne sert pas à trouver un métier mais à transmettre du savoir. C’est très intéressant mais un peu ridicule: dans la Grece antique, les citoyens pouvaient apprendre sans avoir besoin de chercher un travail parce qu’ils n’en avaient pas besoin car ils avaient des esclaves. J’espere que ce n’est pas le modele que nous propose Jules. Quant à dire qu’il y a d’autres endroits que l’université pour apprendre un métier (écoles d’ingé, IUT, BTS…), c’est tout simplement aberrant. D’abord parce que je ne connais pas beaucoup de gens qui peuvent se permettre d’aller à la fac pour apprendre sans avoir besoin de travailler. Ensuite parce que certaines formations ne sont apprises qu’à l’université (droit, médecine). Cela dit, pour être passé par la fac de droit, c’est vrai qu’on peut se demander si on y apprend un métier tant la formation y est peu orientée vers la pratique.]

First we have Jules trying to cast the university as an instrument of sanctified cultural values, kept out of the reach of the market, like what David Graeber described in the U.S. Then we have Yawn retorting that people (except, implicitly, the upper classes) need to work to live, and it’s unrealistic to expect otherwise. Finally, Harry70 argues that the taxpayers shouldn’t fund studies that are “disconnected from reality.”

So on the one hand we have the pragmatic market-oriented investors who argue that taxpayers should get something for their euros and that people have to get jobs to get by, marching here under the banner of “reality” and “need.” And on the other hand, we have the advocates of “knowledge,” of ancient values rising above the obsessive pursuit of profit, of France falling behind in real academic fields because of its market-oriented “myth.” Oddly enough, I feel equally critical of both these dogmatic ideological stances, neither of which seems sufficiently reflexive about its origins.