Sunday, March 3, 2013

Decline of French universities

France has 83 state-supported universities and well over a million undergraduate students in university. After visits over several years to one of these universities and conversations with faculty and students, however, I have come away with some troubling impressions, especially in the humanities. The crux of the apparent problem is a pervasive lack of concern for undergraduate students' learning outcomes on the part of the universities and many of the regular faculty.

Part of this problem derives ultimately from a chronic lack of funding for the universities. Facilities on many campuses are decrepit, and the ratio of students to faculty is quite high. Students are admitted to the university and are charged very low tuition; but sufficient public resources are not made available to allow the university to offer them a high-quality, challenging education.

Another part of the problem is an over-emphasis on research over teaching. Research achievement is certainly an important national goal. But there is a degree of research fetishism that seems sometimes to overwhelm the other values of the university in France, including quality of teaching and learning. This over-emphasis on research within the university is found at the level of the ministry. And it seems to percolate downward as well, to individual campus administrations and to individual faculty. The impression one gets is that only research accomplishment is valued, and there is very little value given to effective teaching, either institutionally or individually. High-prestige research publications are the ticket for career advancement for the faculty member; and nationally visible research achievement is the coin of the realm for university leaders. This value scheme leaves out the undergraduate student almost entirely. But this gives woefully short shrift to the project of creating the next generation of creative, skilled, rigorous thinkers who will constitute the main source of innovation and new knowledge in the France of tomorrow. Currently the universities do not appear to be succeeding in focusing on this crucial task.

And then there is the problem of the turbo prof. This is a very broad phenomenon in the university world of France today that was largely created by the extension of the TGV network of fast trains connecting many secondary cities to Paris with 90 minute journeys. This has helped create the phenomenon of the "turbo prof" -- academics who live in Paris and commute to Tours, Dijon, Strasbourg, or other regional centers. There is a long history of French academics preferring Paris to the regional cities. But now it is possible to live in Paris and spend a day and a half on the regional campus where the academic has an academic appointment.

This phenomenon would not be troubling if the turbo prof kept up his or her part of the bargain: committed teaching, adequate time on campus to advise and assist students, and a reasonable degree of involvement in the intellectual and institutional life of the university. But this is all too often not the case, it appears. Instead, the amount of time spent on the university campus is often reduced to a two-day period of intensive lecturing. The prof travels from Paris on a Monday morning; reaches the campus by 11:00 am; lectures six hours on Monday; stays in a pied-a-terre or hotel room Monday night; lectures another six hours on Tuesday; and returns to Paris in time for dinner on Tuesday evening. It is easy enough to forget about those undergraduates in Tours, Strasbourg, or Dijon by the time the TGV slides into the Gare de Lyons or the Gare de Montparnasse or the Gare de l'Est.

This is very worrisome for the economic and civic future of France. University is a time during which students need to be stretched, challenged, and deepened in their intellectual capacities. But this isn't likely to happen when they have essentially zero contact with faculty, very limited writing assignments, and a very low sense of accountability for their progress on the part of the university.

This is also a hazardous reality for the permanent faculty of these universities. If it becomes apparent that their very limited efforts in their teaching roles make almost no difference in the process of development and maturation that their students achieve, then it is a very short step to concluding that their services are not needed. The few who are genuinely important research scholars may find alternative employment in research institutes, of which France has a fair number. But the idea of a teacher-scholar will be dead. And the next rank of less accomplished researchers will need to look for work outside of academia -- not a very encouraging prospect in France today.

The institutions governing higher education in France need to take these problems seriously. Universities need to refocus their attention on effective, transformative undergraduate education. Faculty need to be re-enculturated to give sincere adherence to the importance of their teaching responsibilities and contact with students. The turbo profs need to extend their work weeks on their regional campuses to a reasonable level -- at least three full days and preferably four. And the Ministry of Higher Education and Research needs to impose real standards of accountability on universities and departments, along the lines of the accreditation processes that exist in North America. And it goes without saying -- those accountability standards need to be focused on the primary values of the university, not the market value of this degree or that.

It is ironic to me that the sociology of education is a much more prominent part of the sociology profession in France than it is in the United States. Much attention has been given to the effects that the educational system has on class stratification, beginning with Bourdieu and Passeron, Les Heritiers: Les etudiants et la Culture, and extending through Mohamed Cherkaoui's École et société : Les paradoxes de la démocratie (French Edition). And yet I haven't been able to locate anything that focuses on the question of educational quality, the educational progress that undergraduates make, and the institutional and individual practices that interfere with educational progress in the universities.

Here is an OECD quality assessment report compiled in cooperation with Universite Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg (link). This document has many of the dimensions of an accreditation report in North America. And it illustrates several of the problems mentioned above. The report gives substantially more attention to research activities than teaching effectiveness; the university's response to this issue when raised in 1985 was essentially nil; and the one effort at implementing measures of teaching quality assessment that was undertaken -- student surveys of educational satisfaction -- was evidently discontinued. The report highlights continuing issues having to do with the effectiveness of undergraduate education: "the excellence of teaching in the postgraduate cycle and the shortcomings of the other cycles, with emphasis on the lack of performance indicators, especially as regards graduate employment; ...".

Here is a recent news story on the funding issues in French universities (link).

French readers -- what are your observations about undergraduate education in French universities?


SocProf said...

I went through the French system in the 1990s and the trends that you describe were not as salient, but definitely there. There were no turboprofs (not enough TGV for that yet) but it was clear that, in the undergraduate years, the professors were more selecting who was going to go through graduate school and would take their pick of next "doctorants" to be affiliated with their research labs (a mandatory requirement... no lab, no Ph.D).

No doubt that undergraduate education was the least of faculty's concern. Professors got interested in you once you showed some competency and commitment to sociology, just by still being there after 4 years (50% drop out rate per year), and survived the stats course (unofficially used as a weeding out tool).

Local recruitment also involved quite a bit of favoritism. Since new positions were almost 100% allocated to internal candidates, if you did not suck up enough to the right professors, your academic career was practically over before it started. That's how I ended up in the US despite being valedictorian from the master's up.

Linca said...

More importantly, French undergraduate education does not happen in the universities. Engaged students below the "licence" level are supposed to be in Classe prépa ; only Medecine and Law faculties actually train the elites, whereas the top humanities students are bound for the ENS, or Sciences Po ; and STEM education happens in the Ecoles d'Ingénieurs. The ones that are more vocationally minded will be going to IUT's and BTS's, selective courses which allow their best pupils to go back to university at the master level. Only those ranked "lower" end up entering université. (and of course this is an overgeneralisation)

This shows why universities undergraduates are the least of France's concern, not only of their teachers... Of course, a few of the Université students will end up getting a PhD, but most will be happy ending up with an medium-level actual job.

Jesús P. Zamora Bonilla said...

Situation is very similar in Spain (though with less TGV's), save that we don't even have those 'elite schools'

Anonymous said...

A central issue of the French system is the fact that there is absolutely NO selection at the entry of universities. Everyone with a "baccalauréat" can enroll, with no selection between promising students and the others. The success rate between the first year and the second year is (in economics, but I guess it's quite the same in other faculties) around 30%, and it's the same between between the second and the third year. In other words, because the law forbid to select at the entry universities have adapted and then select students through failures (that is obviously hugely costly. This is why undergraduate years seem to be so neglected: it's because they are not aimed at giving fundamental learning to students, but to select them.

Maybe the real pattern is more complicated, but I think this impossibility to select at the entry level is a direct consequence of the "egalitarian ideology" rooted in particular in Bourdieu and Passeron's seminal work (work that is strikingly generalized by Raymond Boudon in L'inégalité des chances). This ideology was once widespread in the left (not only the far left), and postulates that formal equality matters more than real equality. This is why we have such a silly system, where anyone *can* enroll at the university but very few *really* succeed, and in general not the poorest ones. Hopefully, if I may say, this too extreme ideology is flowing back in the society, but it may take a lot of time to translate this reflux in effective organizational changes in universities and law.

DRDR said...

A good analysis of the problem with French universities needs to consider that the same criticism about faculty inattention to undergraduates applies to top research universities in the United States. Outside of small liberal arts colleges, a U.S. professor's undergraduate access will typically be limited to an hour of office hours, little different from the French turbo-profs described, yet I don't see U.S. research universities described in such dire terms. Having attended both U.S. and European universities, I suspect the decrepit facilities and lack of overall funding does make a huge difference, especially in the unstructured interaction between students. If the university is simply an awful place where you're coerced to attend lectures, then you lose a lot. Student interaction is often unappreciated (When Larry Summers was Harvard President, he derisively used the term "Camp Harvard"), but the university's success in nurturing undergraduates is much less about top-down planning than most professors would appreciate.

Catherine Paradeise said...

The most important comment is by Linca. The French Higher education and research system is a complex mix of free and open universities (to all students getting out of high school with their Baccalaureat - that is abour 85% of each high school cohort), very selective grandes écoles (the best ones and most of them public, free and some offering salaries to their students - such as Ecoles normales supérieures), and a large set of public research organizations - the largest one of which is the Centre national de la recherche scientifique -. CNRS is now largely embedded into universities (92% of its research units are based in universities and joint ventures with universities). Quality of students as well as quantity of funding is very unequal (and unequitable) between universities and grandes écoles. There are important descrepancies between universities themselves, which have remained long hidden by the fact that the same rules of funding and recruitment are supposed to apply to all of them (and by the French passion for equality, which builds a so-to-speak schizophrenic attitude towards the big higher education divide). Over the last 6 years, and following considerable incremental changes over the former 30 years, the French government, as well as most Western European governments, has lead a policy aiming at profound reforms of the whole system, with the ambition to increase differentiation between universities, concentrate more funding on excellent and dynamic institutions, incite moves towards (mostly public, French and European) competitive funding to loosen the burden of costs of universities on public funding, and to consolidate the link of universities and research to their territorial environment. It would be too long to explain here, but interested people can refer to the book I co-edited in 2009 on these reforms (University governance: Western European comparative perspectives, Springer, 2009). The French landscape and the decline or upgrading of higher education institutions occurring in the country cannot be understood within considering the turmoil created by these reforms: in institutional, financial as well as in psychological terms.

Baptiste said...

Dear Dan,

I'm quite sure that Charles Soulié knows where the studies about educational quality are located. I will ask him.
I would like to come back first on the lack of funding, because it is felt, daily, by students and academics. I teach a class on monday morning (and I've read your post a few minutes before) : it is a first-year class (on the history of sociological thought). 85 students are enrolled (instead of 30/40, because this year, there is no more money to recruit "chargés de cours", so we have to take a double amount of students). Half of the ceiling lights were broken, half of the window-blinds were broken also (and blocked on the "closed" position), and that made for a dim atmosphere. The students complained that they could not see what I wrote on the board.
Near my classroom, half of the toilets were non-functional (broken, or beyond dirty...). The faculty xerox machine is also broken and will not be fixed (no money). We (teachers-researchers) have no office (only one meeting room for 35 teachers-researchers), and only 3 computers for 35 people. The classrooms have no computers, no video projector, no microphone, and sometimes no heating. Some of them need to be cleaned and even repainted.
This context makes innovative pedagogical practices difficult to be implemented... the e-blackboard (ENT, espace numérique de travail) does not really work, and since some of the students are not officially enrolled until december, they have no access to this e-blackboard until the end of the first semester.
You can read here a journal of my working conditions (it is in French, but this is in English).

Unknown said...

For me there is one more, parallel issue to described above. It is about world-wide trend of lowering the meaning of the university degree. It is visible all around the world, and in my opinion will change the academic world. From your remarks, I really agree with the comment on teaching: it has no value in the modern scientific CV. Personally I love to teach, but I just realized that I lost all the time I dedicated to perform these duties with passion and creativity, since they are completely ignored during the hiring procedures... :/ Please read here more about diploma inflation:

Don Coffin said...

"Outside of small liberal arts colleges, a U.S. professor's undergraduate access will typically be limited to an hour of office hours..."

This is clearly not true of the two institutions (Illinois State University and Indiana University Northwest, in Gary) at which I spent a combined total of 32 years. In fact, to the extent that this is a problem (and my friends who are at IU Bloomington, the R-1 campus in the sustem, would dispute this characterization), it's a problem only ar R-1 institutions.

Most publicly supported colleges and universities are more like the two places I spent most of my career. And I would sguggest that access to, and attention from faculty, for individual students is better at such institutions than it is at Harvard...

Anonymous said...

Turboprofs began with the "turbotrain" in the 70s, not with the TGV. Cities like Orléans, Rouen, Reims, Lille, even Rennes and Nantes, were not so far away from Paris. One of my friend in Paris was teaching in Nantes, and as he was allowed to teach all his courses in the same semester, he succeeded in sleeping only 14 times in Nantes in all the academic year.

Anonymous said...

One cannot talk about the French higher education system without mentioning the "prépas" and the "ENS" and "X"... everything, positive or negative, in the French system, revolves around this absolute specificity: these very peculiar institutions are the reason why France still manages to keep a true elite, trusting Fields medals and Nobel prizes compared to similar developed countries (compare the number of French and American Fields medals divided by the population of the country), while heavily underfunding its reserach and higher education system, and failing to adequately form the people "below the cutoff". If a country wants to spend as little money as possible on research and higher education and at the same still form a true world-renown elite, the French system is ideal. The debate on how to improve what is becoming worse and worse (educating the majority) while not destroying the specificity that has made (and still makes) the scientific glory of the country through its elite is an endless one in France.

Marjorie said...

I absolutely agree, Linca. This is an aspect ignored by this article, and yet absolutely central. In the Humanities, most university professors and assistant professors have NOT been educated at universities as undergraduates. They come "en masse" from ENS, which creates a paradoxical system where it is difficult for the teachers to value the experience of their undergraduates, prépa then ENS being considered the absolute elite. So if you're not there, you're probably not a very interesting student. Well, maybe you are, but you are so lost in an ocean of "uninteresting" people that the university system won't bother. It just applies a sort of darwinistic selection: if you made it through undergraduate years, you will be worthy of a closer scrutiny from your teachers, and more attention.
The plague of French universities is not turbo-profs (I know many who are just as dedicated as locals, if not more). It's a double standard that directs practically all money and attention to an ridiculously small elite, and leaves the rest of the students (and teachers!) struggling to work decently.

MathieuP said...

Three factors lead to locational choices in Humanities.

(1) Any University library is mediocre at best when compared to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Except for people working on local archives (most of which have been transferred in Paris anyway), Paris is the only point of access to sources. So, to do research, you have to be or go to Paris.

(2) Most faculty have, at best, a shared office, not always furnished with a usable computer. Difficult to either work or hold office hours.

(3) Spousal arrangements are exaclty non-existent. When both partners are academics, Paris is often the most convenient location even if neither works there.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Linca and sympathize with Baptiste's account of decrepit working conditions. During one of my first teaching appearances at the University of Toulouse, Le Mirail in 1994 a large piece of ceiling tile fell to the floor just missing my head. The students -- about 30 or 40 English majors -- burst out laughing. Linca is correct to point out that France's universities are the "pis aller" -- the "safety choice" in American jargon -- for students who have not been able to enroll in something better upon graduating from high school. This hasn't changed much in the 20 years I've been teaching in France (see my piece in Profession 1996); but I think it will soon, in part thanks to this blogspot and the cumulative effect of other international spotlights that are going to force France to face up to funding inequalities and the generally shoddy physical conditions and work environment at many public universities (and not just in the humanities or "lettres"). As to the "turbo prof", it should be mentioned that I, like most of my colleagues, have never had my own office, so "office hours" and in general an investment in campus life is not easy to make happen. It also doesn't help that French universities -- and libraries -- are mostly run on banker's hours: closed evenings and weekends. Part of the reason is that theft in France is also a huge problem, and therefore equipping classrooms with computers and overhead projectors, loudspeakers, etc. so as to be comparable to the "smart classrooms" of just about any North American college or university, public or private, is not easy either. But besides being thankful for France's still mostly healthy public transportation services, I am thankful that France has not yet gone over to the Anglo-Saxon trend of redefining higher education as a private and no longer a public good (Canada is currently teetering on this question), and that is one of the main reasons why I continue to work and believe in the French public university system... warts and all. C. Jon Delogu, Professeur des Universites, Universite Jean Moulin, Lyon 3

Anonymous said...

I agree with that article but i want to add also something. Today in high school, it gets very difficult to have help on your orientation. Usually there is a person working in each high school to help you but, most of the time she doesn't really know anything, just the regular ways people use to take. This usually need to a wrong path choice, So that's what happen, student, without finding anything just take the closest to their home, that could match their "Baccalauréat". The problem then is that faculty are over populated, too much student did not know what to do and choosed the law faculty for example, so the faculty have 1000 student of law instead of 600 it could manage. Why ? Because if the university is in your area, it cannot deny your entrance to it.

So the lack of implication of high school people to help you find your more appropriate way lead also to these futur problems.

Anonymous said...

A Harvard undergraduate can have plenty of personal contact w professors *if* he/she takes the initiative and seeks it out. That was the case 35 yrs ago and I'm sure it's still true today.

DRDR said...

doc - Yes, you're right that I had R-1s in mind, so my characterization was inaccurate. I've mainly interacted with students who either went to R=1s or LACs, so those are the two options I had in mind.

Anonymous - I absolutely agree. I was referring to typical professorial obligations for teaching an undergraduate course, and these are no more than what would be expected of the turboprofs described in France. To get the profs to stay on campus and help undergrads beyond the minimal obligation, you need a good research environment on campus, so the idea that we need to solve the problem simply by emphasizing research less seems misguided.

Anonymous said...

Marjorie, you have hit the nail on the head, which is why I spoke of addressing inequalities of funding (since they obviously provoke inequalities of "symbolic capital" as well). France has always had the "flagship" (ie ENS) versus the rest (ie, "les fac") model that (unfortunately, and shamefully) U.S. state university systems (notably California) have also tended toward in the last 30-40 years. See Christopher Newfield, "The Unmaking of the Public University: The 40-year Assault on the Middle Class" (Harvard UP, 2008). C. J. Delogu

Fabien said...

Chronic lack of funding, especially at a time where French universities have been welcoming more students from wider social backgrounds, is obviously crucial. "Massification" of further studies without the necessary inputs it implies + a poor institutional recognition of teaching/ pedagogical initiatives and innovations is definitely a very problematic equation.
I am also a colleague of Baptiste and would depict the same picture of our - sometimes very surrealistic, to say the least - day to day working conditions.
Also, as it has been pointed out by Linca and Catherine Paradeise, "university" cannot be taken as a whole homogeonous unit and without their paradoxical and, in a way, intricated relationship to 'classes préparatoires".
These questions could also be examinated in relationship with social inequalities/ opportunities concerns, which is central in the 'classe prépas'/ university debate at undergraduate level (please find an illustration in this following paper, 'Studying in a prépa as surviving in hell’: untold episodes from a mythical media tale';
I would also like to add a brief sociological innuendo to the negative 'common knowledge' image of French university, especially the one of a big manufacture of failing students facing further unemployment. This being particularly the case for students from working class background. That might be partially true if one is only looking at dropout undergraduates rates, but it is also partially wrong if one looks, in a more qualitative approach, at the students 'careers' in the long run... 'Going to Uni', even if one technically fails, is also often a moment preparing students from working class background, to further 'success' in other educational institutions by reshaping their intial projects and aspiration. I guess it is a socio-political dimension which is also relevant to consider. And it is allowed by a public service system with a low rate of entrance fees. This point is obviously not opposing to Daniel's concerns and the many problems listed in the comments above...

DM said...

I would like to point out that "turbo-profs" are largely specific to law, economics, humanities and social sciences, but are very uncommon in STEM. The reason is that in STEM, one is expected to actually spend time at the research lab and have interactions with colleagues and graduate students. It simply would not be tolerated to have a prof showing up at noon on Monday and departing on Tuesday evening, then "working from home". In contrast, humanities and social sciences have a reputation for very distant tutoring of students.

It must be said, however, that in STEM academics have offices, while, as Baptiste rightly points out, many humanities universities do not provide actual offices to their faculty. It is no surprise that these work from home or the library (and perhaps not the library of their university), and largely regard the university as a place where they give a few courses. The situation will not improve until more funding is allocated.

The thing is, "turbo profs" are largely tolerated. According to the statute on university professors, a professor is supposed to reside close to his university, but exemptions can be granted by the university president. This means that lots of people get exemptions

It is also often said that many professors in e.g. law, management and accounting have lucrative side careers as e.g. lawyers or consultants, and do not do much research per se. Again, this has to be authorized by the university president.

DM said...

Some people here have mentioned that anybody with a highschool degree ("baccalauréat") can enter regular university, with no selection, while there exist other, selective, ways of higher education. The thing is, there exist several forms of "baccalauréat": general, technical, and professionnal.

"General" means general education in humanities, and possibly in math/physics, depending on the actual series entered. Technical is more geared towards applications. "Professionnal" is vocational training, with emphasis on practical situations and limited intellectual abstraction.

The "bac pro" was designed to give students a job immediately. Yet, many students from "bac pro" wish to enter higher education. Some of them go to university, because many selective higher education tracks refuse them. It is uncommon that they go to STEM, probably because the (however limited) level in mathematics that's required for such activities is beyond their competence. They try their hand at humanities, arts, law, etc., with something like a 95% failure rate.

Tim said...

There is good cause for concern over the future of the French universities. But there is good cause for concern over the future of universities globally. As in other countries, we in France are feeling the squeeze. We may feel it the more acutely because we begin from a low base level: universities situated in the outer suburbs, such as Paris St Denis, where both Baptiste and I teach, have been struggling for some time, and his tales of penury could have been told at any time over the last ten to fifteen years.

One of the reasons for our high failure rate is that youth unemployment in France has been very high. It has hovered around 20% for the last two decades, and in areas such as the one we serve it is even higher. For the young school-leaver, the university offers a refuge. For the national politician, it takes some pressure off a sensitive social indicator. But it means that many students sign on while lacking any real desire for, or understanding of, what it is they are to study.

But let's not be too gloomy: despite all this, many of the young actually enjoy their years at university, find the work interesting, and their professors, turbo or not, stimulating. I teach English to students from other departments - social sciences, for the most part. While there are some who drop out - perhaps finding a finger-hold in the world of work - many, from first year to masters, are very positive about the experience.

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