To be able to compete with other world-class institutions, France has to become more attractive to both students and teachers worldwide.
To address this negative trend, France ought to dedicate 2% of its GDP to higher education (vs 1.5% to date) and 3% to research (vs little more than 2% to date). Concretely, that would mean €10 billion and €20 billion respectively. Overall, France’s indicators remain below OECD average. As a comparison, Germany dedicates 3.1% of its GDP to research, and Japan 3.2%. But what’s more alarming is that, since 2000, France has only increased its research funding by 0.1% points of GDP, against 0.7 in Germany.
The fact that 77% of higher education is state-funded - wherein the US, it’s 35% and in the UK, it’s 28% - is yet another french peculiarity.
France needs to expand its public spending on education as a larger percentage of its GDP. But such expenditure cannot rest solely on the public authorities, whose budgetary means are all the more constrained following the Covid-19 crisis. Nor can it be to the detriment of students.
An increase in private funding is necessary, through a moderate increase in tuition fees for bachelor's and masters’ degrees (excluding doctorates). University tuition fees in France - €170 and €243 per year respectively for bachelor’s and master’s degrees - are negligible compared to the average expenditure per student of €11,670 in 2017. Comparing France’s tuition fees for a bachelor’s degree to that of neighbouring countries reiterates the french peculiarity: €1,500 for Spain; €1,600 for Italy and €2,000 for the Netherlands - not to mention Canada (€4,600), nor the US (€7,400). That gap remains the same for master’s degrees and doctorates. However, such funding model is only fair if accompanied by the redistributive mechanism of income-contingent loans, increased aid for students in financial difficulty and a sustained commitment by the State to higher education.
Alternative sources of funding should also be developed. Fundraising is still not used enough in France, as opposed to the United States for instance. Simply consider Harvard University which is funded, in great part, by an endowment including thousands of philanthropic gifts to support Harvard’s teaching and research work. In order to give French higher education and research all the means to compete globally, the private sector and alumni networks need to be better engaged in France.
An evolution in governance
On the new funding model advocated here, french universities should be able to find new levers of autonomy. Autonomy - or lack thereof - is another French specificity. Despite the 2007 law on the universities’ autonomy, French academic institutions have very little leeway over careers and HR, career management of teacher-researchers, and resources allocation. The State oversees the management of the university’s real estate, while social and economic conditions of student life are managed by the Centre national des œuvres universitaires et scolaires (CNOUS) and the Centres régionaux des œuvres universitaires et scolaires (CROUS), two institutions under the supervision of the Ministry.