Univerity Reform and the Statu of French College

Brice Le Gall and Charles Soulié

In the last thirty years, the French system of higher education has undergone major transformations that have called into question its academic ethos and have prepared universities for current authoritarian and managerial reforms. An increase in the student population was followed by a rapid expansion of the permanent teaching body of the French university (+102% between 1987 and 2005), as well as a profound movement to diversify the “education offer”.

During this period, applied professional knowledge was greatly diversified. Numerous institutions were formed to meet rising political, social or economic demands: the University Institutes of Technology (IUT), higher education vocational courses (STS), schools of engineering, commerce, among others. Something similar happened in the university sector. An explosion in student enrollment was followed by a redistribution of the teaching body, which reveals the rising power of colleges and of specific disciplines within them—the most professional or the most pragmatic. In relation to colleges, the growth of letters and especially sciences has been below average and medicine has decreased due to the implementation of numerus clausus. The colleges of law and economics have shown the fastest growth, especially in economics and management. Within the economic disciplines, managers will soon become a majority. In law, private law and criminal sciences have the most students, followed by political sciences and public law, while the history of law (more bookish, less practical) collapses. 

Similarly, colleges of letters and human sciences have seen enrollment in “humanities” decrease considerably as human and social sciences increase (sociology, linguistics, psychology), as well as specialized pluridisciplinary studies focused on an empirical object (sports, communication, education, among others) with more practical aims. Professional masters are especially common in these areas. This decline of bookish disciplines with a high level of academic, intellectual and traditional legitimacy (e.g. philosophy, history, French literature, ancient languages) reveals a real cultural transformation among universities and a deep transformation of its social and intellectual functions.

This phenomenon calls into question the ability of research to survive. In the case of the sciences, we are experiencing the relative collapse of the more theoretical disciplines such as physics, chemistry and earth sciences—except for meteorology and oceanography that have received increasing interest from the public sector. In biology, growth is stronger in biochemistry, molecular biology, i.e. fields of research where the possibilities of rapid application of knowledge are greater. In the sciences, the field of “mechanics, informatics and electronics” with closer links to the industrial sector is growing the fastest: in 2005, it involved 39% of the total number of permanent teaching staff in the sciences compared to 27% in 1986.

These evolutions can also be distinguished within each discipline. Indeed, there is growing tension in each discipline between a pole that orients itself towards research and/or is more theoretical and another that is mainly concerned with student “demands” for professionalization, as well as the interests of the business sector. In economics, for example, epistemology and the history of economic thought are increasingly marginalized within the study program, while banking and financing are incessantly growing and with them, a particular vision of economics. In sociology, there is a rise in the study of the sociology of organizations and work and with them a specific definition of sociology not as an intellectual and critical discipline of research, as it was in the 1960s, but as a discipline of expertise and social engineering.

In a context of fast renewal of student cohorts, this evolution is matched with the multiplication of precarious positions and the growing diversification of tasks of the teaching body that contributes to its weakening. The arrival of new publics, the development of tutoring systems, the exigency of following students more closely, have all increased the importance of pedagogy among the teaching staff who, burdened by the administrative work derived from the increasing bureaucratization of this universe, have little time to devote to research.

Above all, this analysis reveals that the diversification of the teaching body has particularly benefited disciplines and institutions that have been recently created and are in full expansion, where the teaching body itself is also younger. The latter have been able to produce a “modern” and “uncensored” version of the university, as well as of the academic profession. Although these disciplines and institutions were relatively marginal in the beginning, they had higher interests to play the game of the current reforms and were more ready to adapt themselves to the rise of the generalized managerial spirit.

The rise of the managerial spirit can also be read as an evolution of governing in the universities, which are increasingly lead by managers, economists or graduates from engineering sciences. Since the law on the responsibility and autonomy of universities (LRU) was passed in 2007, presidents have increased power to hire and define tasks for university lecturers and researchers. Research is increasingly thought in reference to a reduced number of institutions, which accelerate the process of duplication and hierarchization of higher education, further deepening a split between university colleges offering minimal, professional and applied education to a mass of students, while research is reserved for certain institutions, students and academics of “excellence”.

Translation by Ana Villarreal