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The French Brief - Impetus for Reform: Higher Education and Research in France

The French Brief - Impetus for Reform: Higher Education and Research in France
 Institut Montaigne
Institut Montaigne

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted education in a truly unprecedented way. The French higher education and research (HER) system was already riddled with challenges before the pandemic. It is now being put to the test. Multiple tensions are at work in universities across Europe: a real lack of resources coupled with heavy staff fatigue - not to mention the too many students in despair. In France, alarm bells are ringing over the state of limbo of higher education and the dire psychological and academic consequences for the angst-ridden students and professors alike. 

But the reality need not be so bleak. The Covid-19 pandemic has revived the debate about what these institutions should offer, and to whom. The discourse around the higher education and research system is gaining momentum in France, creating great opportunities to renew a what can be called sui generis system. 

Many have come to realize that getting back to normal is no longer an option and that we need to improve France’s current HER system. To achieve this, France must fight against the structural difficulties of universities - severe underfunding, demographic influx, lack of attractiveness to cite only a few - which the pandemic has undoubtedly made even more visible. In this context, Institut Montaigne published a new report on France's Higher education and research (available in French only), which calls for structural transformations, thought out in close collaboration with the actors of our HER system.

A student-oriented approach

At the heart of any viable reform lie the students. In 2019-2020, in France there were a total of 2.7 million of them - all academic qualifications combined. Unfortunately, one in five students leaves higher education without graduating, around 75,000 young people per year. Only 30% of them obtain their bachelor's degree in 3 years, and 40% in 4 years. 

As a pledge to narrow these gaps, France must adopt a new student-oriented approach, based on the students' needs. Firstly, France should establish a universally accessible system of income contingent loans to cover not only tuition fees but also living expenses, in order to tackle the students' financial difficulties. Secondly, France must uphold the country’s quality of higher education and research, through the adoption of a multi-annual programming law. Thirdly, France should increase its current social assistance for those who really need it by €250 million - i.e. a 12.5% increase. Currently, France offers social assistance schemes to about 222 000 students, each one receiving from €455 to €561 per month. In 2018, scholarships on social criteria represented about €2 billion. 

A new economic model

France has reached a tipping point: its higher education’s economic model, marked by chronic underfunding, is no longer sustainable. As a result, France is not fighting on equal terms with other countries. While for all OECD countries, average spending per student increased by 8% between 2010 and 2016, it fell by 5% in France over the same period. 

France has reached a tipping point: its higher education’s economic model, marked by chronic underfunding, is no longer sustainable. 

France is gradually losing its global visibility pertaining to international scientific publications as well as the attraction of international students. If in 2000 France ranked 5th by number of scientific publications, it fell to 8th in 2016. The country is struggling to make its mark in the league table of the world's best universities - hence an increasing brain drain from which the country is suffering. Working conditions abroad, not to mention salaries, have led the best French researchers, and often even the best students, to take off. 

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.

As a result, France is currently lagging far behind its European neighbors. According to a study from the European University Association (EUA), comparing 29 European countries or regions, France ranks 20th in terms of organizational autonomy. Comparing the French model with foreign examples illustrates to what extent the governance model of French universities is not self-evident. The fact that members of the Board of Governors (Conseil d'administration) are essentially chosen directly or indirectly by the staff and students of the institution is highly atypical. 

France ranks 20th in terms of organizational autonomy, lagging far behind its European neighbors.

Similarly, the president’s election - also appointed indirectly by the university's staff and students - is also far from being the general case when looking at foreign systems. While such appointments methods have their perks (e.g. fostering widely shared choice), they can also exacerbate internal quarrels or prevent bold choices. Universities’ Board of Governors should thus be reformed in accordance with international standards (limited number of members, majority of external members) and headed by a president chosen for his or her management skills, not necessarily from among the university’s faculty.

By increasing their autonomy, universities can begin to play the role in ensuring the success of their students and the development of their research activities, both in terms of real estate policy, social support and staff recruitment. 

A strengthened research

Another crucial lever by which to boost France’s attractiveness is a better integration between higher education and research. France’s education is defined by its fragmented and stratified landscape between different administrations, universities, independent research institutions and mixed research units. Such complexity poses problems of legibility and career management that hinder true integration between research and higher education. The shrinking pool of doctoral students in France clearly illustrates the lack of a teaching-research continuum to attract talents. Teaching and research careers are no longer sufficiently attractive. Hence, (re)valuing doctoral contracts and scientific careers goes hand in hand with strong incentives for researchers to invest in teaching. 

 Teaching and research careers are no longer sufficiently attractive. 

Besides the fragmented, stratified, and multitype nature of France’s HER system, our country must now deal with the significant impact coronavirus had on its research sector. Essentially engaged in coronavirus vaccine studies, multiple other research projects were hampered, and experiments halted. So how can French research emerge from the midst? 

In terms of research, a reform of the National Research Agency (ANR) to make it a true agency of means would, with a significantly increased budget, lead to an important development of projects, within the framework of an ambitious strategy. At the European level, France could also benefit more from the European Research Council (ERC) and other programmes such as Horizon 2020. As of today, France benefits relatively little from European funds, thereby depriving itself of the leverage effect that the European Union can provide. Under the Horizon 2020 programme, for every €1 contributed to the EU budget, only €0.66 went to France. Following on, France could also develop the European Research Council (ERC) into a European counterpart to the American National Science Foundation (NSF), which would considerably increase France’s competitiveness worldwide.

France must undertake structural changes of higher education and research around a clear strategic line, solid governance and a collective commitment from all academics, institutions and governmental stakeholders. New higher education and research for a new world - for it is always in the wake of major global crises that the global system has reformed itself



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