Pécresse, business and the human sciences

I started to feel that I’d been over-privileging the protestors in this blog, so I thought I’d translate a recent speech by the Minister of Higher Education and Research, Valérie Pécresse. Pécresse has had a controversial time in the Ministry and is now running for regional offices in Ile-de-France. This week she spoke at a conference at her Ministry, titled “Human Sciences: New Resources for Enterprise?” I couldn’t make the conference because the website said it was full and couldn’t accept further registrations, but I found the text online. Her speech was everything one could wish for — at least if what one wishes for is the best possible integration of universities into the work world.

I’ve been listening to the results of your debates with great interest.

It’s remarkable that we’ve been able to bring students, young graduates, university actors and business representatives together for this debate on the “new resources for enterprise” that the human and social sciences represent.

The question that has been discussed here for the past three-plus hours is essential. It’s at the heart of my activities at the Ministry of Higher Education and Research.

There was a time when, among employers, the universities had a bad reputation in relation to other establishments of higher learning. This time has passed. For almost three years now I’ve led efforts that aim to restore the universities to their full place in the country’s instructional programs.

Graduates in the human and social sciences deserve to be supported in their search for employment. To be sure, three years after the end of their studies, graduates with a license in classics, languages or history have unemployment rates around 7%, which is actually lower than those with the same degree in physics (8%) or chemistry (12%). But these encouraging statistics should not hide a worrisome reality: these fields also see a process of unacknowledged selection — by failure. This failure extends to as many as 50% of enrolled students, in both the first and in the second years [of the 3-year license].

For too long, we have let things be without reacting.

The fields of social and human sciences have welcomed many of the students coming from the second wave of massification of university enrollments, the one that began in the 80s. But the democratization of access to higher education has remained unfinished. We have too often neglected to support these new high school graduates. They have been driven by the system’s inertia [les pesanteurs] towards the social and human sciences, without really having chosen them.

It was in order to reverse these tendencies that the law of 2007 set disciplinary and professional placement [l’orientation et l’insertion professionnelle] at the heart of the university’s missions. The “License plan” has offered universities the means to bring students up to speed and to better prepare them to enter professional life.

It was not acceptable that many enrolled students never showed up to take their exams, nor that the university had such high exam failure rates. From this point forward, troubled students should be able to leave the university better armed for professional life. And, starting this year, universities should furnish their professional placement indicators.

In other words, students and students’ issues have been brought back to the heart of the university. Henceforth it will be possible to respond to their legitimate needs for disciplinary placement, for training [formation] and for preparation for professional life.

In this room we have actors with years of experience in professional placement. But until these last few years, their initiatives remained isolated and lacked sufficient overall coordination. That’s why, for the last three years, I’ve pushed to regroup our job placement efforts and to make them more coherent.

Little by little, the universities have reorganized their forces of professionalization within job placement offices (BAIP). And placement indicators are just the start of an immense effort to constitute a set of figures, which will make it possible to closely follow the impact of degree programs on students’ employability. At the same time, universities are learning how to emphasize the competences that go along with each of their programs. This is essential for letting employers know where to turn to diversify their hiring.

The coming years will involve reinforcing and diversifying the job prospects [débouchés possibles] for all students who pass through the human sciences and social sciences. Taken together, these fields represent 56% of students at the university — and this figure remains stable from the license to the doctorate. That means that the human sciences and social sciences have an immense need for placement.

In addition to teaching posts, the public sector in general offers the human sciences and social sciences a number of openings. On one hand, this is a good thing: the renovated State of the 21st century will have a need for “general culture,” for the spirit of synthesis, for the attention to the human factor that we get from the sciences of man and society. But an efficient State does not multiply its employees until they stretch out of sight. One must go where jobs are being created. It is the private sector where one can expect the diversification of openings and the multiplication of jobs for the graduates of the human sciences and social sciences.

That’s what gives today’s meeting its importance. I’m happy that it has taken place so soon after the Council for the Development of the Humanities and Social Sciences suggested it, in the report that it submitted to me last January 14th. The large crowd we see here today confirms that this Council, with its eminent and rich reflections on the future of the sciences of man and society, was right to make reflections on professional placement a priority.

This morning’s debates will have contributed to the emergence of a new state of mind; they will have let people working on the same thing nation-wide meet each other; finally, they will lead to concrete progress on these issues.

I know that a certain number of you, among the university placement officials, are going to meet this afternoon, after this meeting, to get to know each other better, to discuss your experiences and to reflect, concretely, on how to improve placement efforts. Your experiences are diverse, often rooted in the regional reality of an employment pool. However, students’ expectations, universities’ ideas, and recruiters’ worries are often very similar across regions. You have much to gain by networking on the supraregional and even national scale.

On the recruiters’ side too, a holistic vision needs to be put together. Operation Phoenix has played a pioneering role in organizing high-quality recruitment at the master’s level in SHS [social and human sciences]. The graduates involved are being hired with permanent contracts (CDI) and are getting instruction that should rapidly adjust them to the realities of business. This involves a demanding procedure that makes some enterprises recoil: some feel that they don’t yet have the means to correctly evaluate the value of an SHS degree; others feel that they don’t have the size necessary to support the necessary financial engagement. Nonetheless, Operation Phoenix has the great significance of having constituted a reference: it sets the standard for best practices in professional placement in the human and social sciences.

Of course, faced with the realities of economic life, faced with the diversity of situations that businesses confront, it would be absurd to want to impose a standardized procedure. The Elsa procedure, which has also been in place for a few years now, has done very important follow-up work to better adapt student profiles and business demand. Other initiatives have been taken elsewhere, to adapt to particular regional contexts or sectors of activity. The variety of these formulas deserves to be encouraged, provided that one respects quality requirements and that SHS graduates are not treated as second-rate.

Over the term of its work on graduates’ employability, the Council for the Development of the Humanities and Social Sciences has recommended, among other things, the creation of a “good SHS placement label” that would be given to businesses that perform well in this domain and that follow a chart of best practices. The use of such a label would have the advantage of taking into account the diversity of experiences while still fixing quality requirements at the national level and in giving the means to “pass to higher speed,” to borrow the title of the second roundtable.

The considerable work done in Operation Phoenix or in the Elsa process has produced results that are qualitatively appreciable but that remain quantitatively limited. I would thus like to encourage the actors in these operations, and all those who work on similar initiatives, to imagine how such a label might be put in place. It would of course be necessary to consult the universities, especially via the Conference of University Presidents, in specifying the details [modalities]of such a labeling process. Everyone will get something out of this operation: students, universities, and enterprises alike.

There is no question here of confounding roles. The Ministry’s role is to guarantee the quality of educational programs and to officially recognize them. Its role is also to encourage the universities to rapidly constitute reliable placement indicators. Today, I think, the objective is not to multiply professional programs, but to make sure that programs in human and social sciences are recognized alongside the professional degrees. And the labeling we’ve discussed concerns recruiters too. I imagine that the promoters of Phoenix, of Elsa and of other similar operations will put in place a “labeling committee” constituted by independent actors, one whose first task will be to elaborate the guidelines for “best practices in SHS placement.” At this moment, it will be possible for the Ministry of Higher Education and Research to be represented on this committee.

A few quick translation notes… (a.) the license is the introductory French university degree, approximately like a bachelor’s but three years long and generally more specialized. (b.) I’ve had a lot of trouble translating formation, which is something like education but has the connotation of “forming” a person in a specific field. Often formation designates a sort of specialized education, more or less professionally oriented. (c.) “Placement” or is my translation of insertion, a word which means getting “inserted” into some professional workplace. I’m not sure it quite captures the same connotations, but it will have to do for now.

Also, as usual in this translation game, the text refers to other entities that I’m not well acquainted with. I’ve never heard of Elsa, but I did look up Operation Phoenix and it’s apparently a project that gets MA graduates (of some nine Parisian universities) hired at several major corporations: Axa, Coca-Cola Entreprise, Danone, HSBC, Marine Nationale, L’Oréal, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Renault, Société Générale. It’s paradoxical, to say the least, that there would be so much emphasis on finding jobs for French graduates at the same time that precarious labor within the university system is so low on the ministry’s priority list.

I’m interested by a number of other features of this speech, from the bureaucratic and organizational futures it envisions to its absolutely unquestioned emphasis on job placement (which infuriates so many of the faculty critics here), from its vision of a shrinking French State to the emphasis on “quality” and “best practices” combined with clear job outcomes. But above all I’m struck by the fact that, in this vision of things, the integration of public higher education into the business world is total. Total.