OECD on French university reforms

I’ve had the impression for some time that French faculty critics of government university reforms tended to view them as a neoliberal project originating with the OECD, but until this week I’d never looked into the OECD’s actual position on France. It turns out that they have taken a stance that supports the government reforms pretty much 100%. The following is from the OECD’s economic summary of France, done in 2009:

A number of significant reforms have been launched recently to breathe new life into public research by increasing its funding, but also by strengthening its organisation and governance. Creation of the Research and Higher Education Evaluation Agency (AERES) has laid the foundation for evaluating universities and research laboratories more systematically against criteria such as publications and patents. It is important that this principle be reinforced. Indeed, the recent decision to upgrade university career profiles is an opportunity to raise the performance bar for the entire teaching-research profession. The reform underway at the CNRS, designed to enhance its co-operation with universities and other national research organisations, is a welcome step and should also help improve the productivity of public research. As well, the newly created National Research Agency should be supported and its role expanded inasmuch as it promotes project-oriented public research, which will make for a more balanced allocation of resources in comparison with a situation where funds are awarded essentially on an institutional basis.

France is in fact the leader among G7 countries for the share of higher education institutions in the total number of patents filed by inventors living in the country, but few of them are actually brought to market. The spillover effects of public research could be enhanced by creating technology transfer and licensing offices in the universities, as a useful supplement to the “business incubators” policy. Finally, the “Universities Freedom and Responsibility Act” has laid the initial groundwork for autonomy in the French universities, which should boost the quality and efficiency of higher education. Notwithstanding the many helpful measures taken to date, however, the effort to reinforce university autonomy should be pursued further, particularly in the areas of budgeting and hiring and remuneration of personnel. This goal would be well served by allowing the universities greater freedom to select incoming students and to set tuition fees. Higher fees should be paired with an expansion of the system of students loans recently introduced.

I fear that this bit of text may present a spurious sort of transparency for an international reader. What strikes me as interesting, and may come as news to some of you, is that basically every claim here is presented as the epitome of simple common sense and yet every single claim would be radically contested by French faculty critics. Just to give a quick list, I’ve seen critiques of the National Research Agency and the idea of project-based research funding; I’ve seen critiques of the Research and Higher Education Evaluation Agency and of evaluation by quantitative measures of research productivity; I’ve seen critiques of the reorganization of the CNRS, and certainly of the idea of trying to orient research more closely around patents and commercialization; and above all there was an entire protest movement in 2009 dedicated to stopping the law on university “autonomy.” This movement, moreover, was particularly focused on stopping tuition increases (which the OECD supports) and stopping the deregulation of academic labor (which the OECD describes optimistically as “autonomy… in hiring and remuneration of personnel”).

My point here isn’t to take sides or to go through the pros and cons of these policy decisions, but simply to make the broader observation that the OECD writes as if none of their recommendations were in the least politically controversial, as if they were the product of a pure pragmatic desire to do whatever is most “helpful,” whatever will “breathe new life” into the system… as if all the critics were a bunch of fossils and the OECD was simply the voice of impartial practicality. It seems to me that, whether or not they’re right on the substantive issues, this elision of policy disagreement is telling, and intellectually unfortunate.