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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le paradoxe de l’enseignement supérieur

by Jean Fabbri

The paradox of higher education

Translated Friday 21 September 2007, by Gene Zbikowski

The basics of the professional activity of teacher-researchers explain why many academics — from a wide range of political horizons — oppose the “freedoms and responsibilities of the universities” law.

By Jean Fabbri, lecturer in mathematics at the University of Tours, general secretary of the SNESUP-FSU teachers union.

How does the law on “responsibility and freedom” aggravate the university situation?

How many years does it take to develop new materials, to collect data on planets outside our solar system? How many years does it take to evaluate changes in the family? How long does it take, how many generations of researchers to develop a mathematical theory? University research activity strikes a sympathetic chord with university teaching, vibrating at the same frequency: feeding teaching on scientific progress and passing the baton on to new generations at the cutting edge of the advance of human knowledge. These self-evident truths help one to understand that the university time frame does not coincide with that of the terms in office of elected university presidents, no more than contracts correspond to the time periods in the domain of education and research, which remain coherent in their finalities and their results. Thus it is truly the basics of the professional activity of teacher-researchers that explains why many academics — from a wide range of political horizons — opposed the “freedoms and responsibilities of the universities” law.

The concept of a university president as being a “manager who leaves his stamp” tends to impose such a paradox, and the law adopted by the French Parliament on August 1 (the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Greens voted against it) has just reinforced this situation while considerably worsening it. If short-term views are at the very least debatable in economics, they are catastrophic as concerns research and higher education.

The speed demanded by the government in considering the text of the bill made a real debate impossible. The practically unanimous negative reaction on the part of the scientific community forced the Minister of Education to back down on one point, duly enacted by Parliament: Only academics, researchers or ... associated teachers are eligible to become the president of a university. Even though the final formulation remains much too general, the deputies in Parliament clearly indicated that the universities are not to be handed over to mercenaries.

This law is anything but a technical adaptation of the 1984 law on the number of members on the university administrative council and the governance of the universities. This law upsets the missions of the university, which it makes subservient to management principles that are more economic than scientific, it strangles academic freedom and sets up a feudal hierarchy to control teacher-researchers. I may cite, without pretending to exhaust the subject, the attribution of bonuses at the local level by the university president, the designation of recruiting committees that do not respect parity between professors and lecturers and lack guidelines to impose academic standards, with – as a sword of Damocles hanging over the recruiting committee’s decisions – a veto accorded to the university president. The arbitrary shift towards recruiting without regard to law, temporary or permanent job contracts, the encouragement of the use of private funds to finance theses and teaching positions, and to govern research themes ... will accentuate the scientific damage — in particular in regard to the lack of career perspectives for young researchers — that has already been caused by the “pact on research” instituted by the 2006 Goulard law and the agencies which it created (ANR et AERES).

The absence of an overall budget in September means a difficult beginning for the academic year. Once again staff will have to “take on board” an overload of work (student orientation and advising, teaching, administrative tasks...) to the detriment of research activities. To add insult to injury, to the increased material difficulties that students face and to their confusion facing a university system that is already too competitive and too divided into fiefdoms, the government’s acts will sharpen inequalities. The proposed 2008 budget confirms this; the research tax credit – whose efficiency has not been proven by any study – is turned more and more by this bill into a subsidy to private business – amounting to nearly a billion euros – which is granted without there being any requirement for a return on the investment.

These attacks on scientific freedom and on democratic freedom (corporate governance of the university...) are on an equal scale with the other bills that were hastily adopted this summer: laws on minimum criminal sentences, on repeat criminals, attacks on the right to strike. It is extremely regrettable that these measures were not contested before the Constitutional Council by the Socialist Party deputies (the only opposition group large enough to engage the procedure!).

The SNESUP teachers union warns of the serious dangers presented by a law that does not provide either the means or the orientation for a new dynamic to mobilize the intellectual forces of France. The SNESUP teachers union calls, not only on academics and students, but on all citizens who are devoted to freedom to prepare a combative Autumn in order to render inevitable both the repeal of this law and the drafting of a new law embodying a completely different, democratic, vision for higher education and research.

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