24 April 2008

Philippe Corcuff on French university reforms

By Kees van der Pijl

In Le Monde, Saturday 19 April 2008, there was a verbatim report of a debate on the need for reform of French society that included a significant part on universities reform.

Of course, 'reform' these days is a code word for deepening capitalist market discipline on every aspect of social life, and three of the four participants in the debate obviously took this understanding of the term for granted. The two politicians taking part, Xavier Bertrand for the presidential party UMP, and François Hollande for the Socialists, agreed on the need for reform; no need to repeat the generalities they exchanged. The insert with graphs and figures accompanying the article, showing that 55 per cent of all French people consider that 'reform' in the last fifteen years has mainly benefited 'the privileged' had apparently not been shown to them, or else they did not consider it relevant.

The most interesting debate was between Jacques Attali, a former associate of François Mitterrand, and a sociologist, Philippe Corcuff. Attali has headed a committee 'for the liberation of growth'. This report, according to its chair's contribution to this discussion, has established that the state in France functions to preserve a system of rentes de situation, rents appropriated on account of economic or social position (other than profitable enterprise). Basically Attali says that the welfare state still persists in France and that this gives people entitlements which should be stripped away to match what is happening in neighbouring countries such as Britain.

Corcuff challenged this idea All the talk of 'rents', he said, is simply meant to create a climate in which people's entitlements can be taken away, in a situation where the top 10 percent of the population already owns 46 percent of national wealth. Since 1982, the share of wages in the French economy has fallen by ten percentage points.

About the universities, Attali claimed that his committee's proposals concerning higher education have gone down well with everybody. The idea of creating ten top universities for instance, 'without devaluing the others'—the standard phrase to cover the obvious objection. Again no apparent awareness that this links in directly with growing inequality; the upper class, increasingly separate from the rest of society, also wants its own route through higher education.

Corcuff had valid points on this issue too. He noted that there is already widespread discontent about the new universities law (loi Pécresse). This law, he argued, is not the ultraliberal law as many claim, because the universities remain in the public domain. Instead the law has been passed under the pressure of university presidents, and under the aegis of 'autonomy' in fact turns universities into feudal institutions. University presidents, he noted, are those who have abandoned research and teaching and who as a result have little or no standing in either field. It is a shocking thought that such people are given the sovereign power of hiring academics and evaluating careers. This caste of university bureaucrats has been greatly strengthened by the loi Pécresse, which turns them into a sort of company managers. But research and higher education are not products like soap, they are public goods, Corcuff maintained. What the current university reform does in the name of autonomy, is to reinforce localism, clientelism, and bureaucratic arbitrariness.

One would think that what is happening in France has some striking similarities with what is going on in British higher education. The notion of exchanging professionalism for loyalty to institutions (led by managers who in spite of academic titles have little or no standing as professionals in most cases), is indeed a form of feudalism. It represents a sharp break with the idea that an intellectual's status is ultimately decided by a professional community which today is global, and that a good university tries to bring those with established reputations to its own institution and ensures that they flourish there . By creating an appropriate environment, such a university will also ensure that new generations of researchers and teachers are raised to the same level and that students get the best education possible. This is a matter of civilisation and something worth fighting for.

Kees van der Pijl
International Relations, Sussex