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Zooming in on Higher Education and Research

Zooming in on Higher Education and Research

When looking at the Higher Education and Research system (ESR) in France, one thing becomes clear: the economic model of French higher education, marked by chronic underfunding and highly centralized operations, is no longer sustainable. While one of the priorities of the presidential term has been implementing reforms with the aim of increasing access into higher education and student success rates, the question of university financing remains unresolved to this day. Jean-Michel Catin, former director of the AEF education-research editorial office, sheds light on the ESR system in France over the past five years.

With a few weeks to go until the French elections, this article is part of a series that looks into the achievements and drawbacks of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential term. The extended analysis in French can be found here

Key Notions:

  • The Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation (MESRI) - The ministry of France overseeing university-level education and research, headed by Frédérique Vidal, its current Minister. 
  • The Research Programming Law (LPR) was launched in 2020, and is set to run from 2021 to 2030, in order to restore budgetary growth to French research, offering prospects for strengthening its place on the international scene.
  • The French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) is the French state research organization and is the largest fundamental science agency in Europe.
  • The French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), is a French public government-funded research organization in the areas of energy, defense and security, information technologies and health technologies.
  • Grandes Ecoles - French elite higher education institutions, running in parallel to the university system. 
  • The classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles (CPGE) - Commonly called classes prépas or simply prépas, these are part of the French post-secondary education system.They consist of two years of study (extendable to three or exceptionally four years) which act as an intensive preparatory course with the main goal of training students for enrolment in one of the grandes écoles
  • The Higher Technician Certificate (BTS) is awarded at the end of a short training course in higher education that normally lasts 2 years. It is a vocational higher education qualification that meets the needs of businesses.
  • Parcoursup - An application process designed by both the French Ministry of Education and the French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation to allocate undergraduate places to high school students and other candidates, mainly undergraduate students wanting a reorientation.
  • The Law to Promote Student Success (ORE) - Launched in 2018 with the aim of improving the success rates of students, regardless of their study field or career aspirations
  • The Law on Freedom and Responsibility of Universities (LRU) - Aims to give universities more financial autonomy.
  • The Law for a State at the Service of a Society of Trust (ESSOC) - Part of the government’s strategy to modernize the action of public services. It has two pillars: trust and simplicity, and is aimed at all users - individuals or companies - in their daily relations with public authorities. 
  • University regrouping - An approach implemented by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research in 2013, with the aim of strengthening the links between universities and creating research centers. This involves: fusing single-disciplinary universities (i.e. science, humanities) into one multidisciplinary university; forming communal establishments of universities (ComUE); and launching associated research networks. 

Key Figures

  • France devoted 32.6 billion euros to higher education in 2019. The State contributed 67.1%. The average expenditure per student amounts to 11,530 euros, which is 1.3 times more than in 1980.
  • Since 2011, the average expenditure per student has fallen, as a result of sharp increases in student numbers. Thus, the average expenditure per student has fallen by nearly 6.1% in five years, even though the number of students enrolled has increased by nearly 11.5%.
  • ​​During 2019‑20, 818,000 students received at least one financial aid from the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, i.e. more than four out of ten students.
  • Half of women have a higher education diploma, compared to barely four out of ten men. However, women are in the minority in scientific training courses. Their unemployment rate in 2017, three years after leaving higher education, is higher at almost all qualification levels than that of men, and their employment conditions are less favorable.
  • In 2018, 16% of domestic R&D expenditure in France was dedicated to information and communication technologies (ICT). Companies thus devote €7.3 billion to ICT, i.e. 22% of all their internal R&D expenditure. With €0.9 billion, the administrations contribute in a much more limited way to the R&D effort in ICT.
  • As with other research-intensive countries, France's share of world publications is falling with the emergence of new scientific powers. In 2019, the country is 8th in terms of participation in global publications.

Evaluating higher education and academic research in France:

  • At the beginning of Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term, France had been in steady decline in international rankings of higher education and research. 
  • While in 2000 France ranked 5th worldwide for its number of scientific publications, it ranked 7th in 2018, and 12th in terms of the most cited publications, falling to a "mid-range" specialization. As the link between higher education and research has weakened, there has also been a decline in the global ranking of French universities. The causes behind this are well known and varied. They include insufficient funding, the excessive complexity of the French model which pits different sectors (public/private, universities/research organizations/business schools) against each other, rather than promoting a unified approach, and the lack of a long-term strategic vision for higher education. 
  • The economic model of French higher education is no longer sustainable. It is chronically underfunded and still operates in a highly centralized manner around the Ministry of Higher Education (MESRI).
  • Reforms in French higher education remain incomplete at this stage - universities still lack autonomy, the process of regrouping and merging universities with research institutions is yet unfinished, there is insufficient differentiation of objectives among the various educational structures, evaluation remains ineffective, and there is limited differentiation between student’s academic profiles, raising concerns about university selectivity. To tackle these challenges, the government has outlined 3 priorities: increasing access and success rates for students in higher education; deepening institutional and policy autonomy; increasing research outputs.
  • The research programming law (LPR) initiated on December 24, 2020 aimed to strengthen France’s research financing and provide a long-term strategy, by devoting €25 billion to public research between 2021 and 2030. However, Covid-19 has exposed the limitations of this strategy. The LPR is too centralized on research, as well as on main research organizations - such as the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) - to the detriment of strengthening the link between higher education and research. This has been particularly salient among universities, whose structural weaknesses have been exposed by the public health crisis.
  • Although universities have employed innovative strategies to ensure the continuity of teaching during lockdowns, the pandemic has strongly affected students, increasing dropouts and deepening social insecurity. The widespread, long-term implementation of e-learning has prevented student enrolment, while the preparatory classes for the grandes écoles (CPGE) and higher technician diplomas (BTS), which depend on high schools, have maintained in-person learning with strict health protocols. France’s universities generally lack the financial and operational means to take the necessary actions - be it with regards to ensuring secure financing methods during emergencies, or HR management. 
  • During this presidential term, the government has prioritized higher education entry and student success rates, particularly at the university level, as a result of more efficient evaluation of student profiles and training offers. 
  1. Despite the unprecedented challenges to education due to the health crisis, Parcoursup and the "Orientation et Réussite des Étudiants" law (ORE, enacted in March 2018) have profoundly changed the system of student applications, particularly with regards to accessing "saturated" fields of study. Young people and their families are now accustomed to the idea of pursuing a "chosen" (rather than automatic) career path.
  2. In order to increase student success, universities have amplified support for individualized courses. This represents a step in the right direction, though it is too early to measure lasting effects on student success, given the effects that Covid-19 and remote learning have had on school dropouts. 
  • The key determinant of the government’s success in higher education, linked to the positive effects of the ORE law, remains the ability for universities to freely select the profile of their students. The absence of systematic university selection in France is an exception in Europe. In Germany and Italy, selection is made during secondary school, with early orientation towards technical training (the German "Realschule" and "Hauptschule"); In the UK and Spain, selection takes place both during secondary school and then at higher education entry.
  • Furthermore, university autonomy and individual policies have been subject to governmental measures with contrasting effects. The challenge was to make the conditions for university groupings more flexible, particularly in terms of governance, while simultaneously making institutions responsible for their individual choices. Since the 2007 implementation of the LRU law, consecutive governments have made reforms on higher education. This undoubtedly represents a step forward, making it possible to give higher levels of responsibility and power to universities, as well as promoting greater collaboration between universities and grandes écoles. 
  1. Autonomy - with the initiation of the LRU law on August 10, 2007, the governance of universities has evolved: they now have budgetary autonomy, manage their own human resources, and have a president and central councils to reinforce their ability to implement action. The board of trustees have also begun diversifying their profiles to include members from other socio-economic spheres.
  2. Unification of universities and research organizations: since the implementation of the 2006 law on research programs, consecutive governments have made efforts to bring together universities, research organizations, and companies in joint governance structures. This model is based on the "comprehensive universities" model and large multidisciplinary research universities in the UK and US. In 2018, the ESSOC law was initiated. This law, which promotes "a State at the service of a trust-based society", has authorized experimentation and promoting new forms of collaboration and merging between higher education and research institutions such as the Paris Polytechnic Institute, the Paris-Saclay University, PSL University, the University of Paris or the Université Côte d'Azur created in 2019. 
  • However, the promotion of university autonomy as well as collaboration has been undermined by the state’s inability to change its relationship with higher-ed institutions. Rather than moving forward in institutional autonomy, supported by more effective evaluation, the government chose to rather decentralize the existing State services, with limited financial means, suggesting a persisting bureaucratic supervision by the MESRI - in sum, a regression. France still lags far behind its European peers in terms of university autonomy. In 2017, the European University Association (EUA) ranked France in 20th and 27th places out of 29, in terms of organizational, financial, academic and HR management autonomy. Factors taken into consideration include modes of governance, financial resources, the organization of recruitment and careers for teacher-researchers, and student selection - the operations of which remain largely centralized within the Ministry of Education.
  • The LPR had the unique potential to deepen the links between research organizations and universities, by facilitating local convergences, through, for example, promoting collaboration between professors and researchers. However, due to its primary focus on research, the LPR has largely "forgotten" its university component.
  • In spite of Emmanuel Macron’s budgetary priority on research, as reflected in the LPR, the funding issues for research have not been resolved. As far as research is concerned, the budget of the National Research Agency, created in 2005 to fund research projects, has been on the rise since 2016, after falling by almost 40% between 2010 and 2015. While the ANR spent €518M on calls for research projects in 2018, or 0.02% of GDP, the LPR plans to increase its resources by an additional €1Bn by 2030. However, this level remains far behind the best European practices: in Germany, the equivalent of the ANR, the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft), provided more than €3bn for German research in 2018, equivalent to 1% of GDP. 
  • The government’s financial support should be strengthened in order to effectively reach the target of dedicating 3% of GDP for research, as set out in the LPR. In 2017, research funding only accounted for 2.2% of GDP in France, compared to 2.4% on average in the OECD, and 3.1% in Germany. This lack of resources, and the fact that French research has fallen behind in international competition, was emphasized during the public health crisis, as French universities were unable to contribute to vaccine developments to the same extent as Britain and Germany.
  • The question of university funding remains unresolved. France devotes too few resources to higher education: only 1.4% of GDP in 2016 according to the OECD, compared to 2.5% for the US and 1.7% for the UK. Only Spain and Italy, demographically similar to France, devote a smaller share of their GDP to higher education funding. Moreover, while all other OECD countries have increased their average expenditure per student by 8% between 2010 and 2016, France witnessed a 5% decrease in the same period. France's higher education budget has not kept pace with the significant increase in enrollment since 2010 (+1.6% in 2019 and +21.3% since 2009 - in other words, a quadrupling of students in ten years), leading to a reduction in domestic education expenditure (DEE) for higher education per student. Universities appear to be particularly disadvantaged, providing €11,670 per student in 2017 compared to €15,760 in CPGE.
  • Governmental reforms have failed with regards to increasing tuition fees for non-EU foreign students. These reforms were initiated in 2019, comprising €2,770 for bachelor's degrees and €3,770 for master's degrees (compared to €170 and €243 for French and European students). Despite the Conseil d'Etat’s legal validation, universities have largely refused to implement these measures, leading to a damaging blockage, which is ideological in nature, to the financing model of universities. The detrimental result is that there is neither the necessary re-engagement of the State in Higher Education and Research outputs, nor an increase in student contributions.
  • In sum, France will not have a globally competitive higher education and research system without devoting financial resources at a national level, and without giving universities the necessary autonomy. 
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