This paper takes a global look at higher education reform in France. It outlines Nicolas Sarkozy’s commitments to reform France’s universities, the legislative and administrative measures taken through 2007 and 2008, and alternative mechanisms which could be used to lift France’s university system into the international first tier.Adopting and modifying reforms implemented with success in Australia through 2003 – 2006, this paper provides concrete options to improve the quality and status of university teaching, to meet the funding needs of undergraduate study and university infrastructure, to improve governance and efficiency in public expenditure in French universities.

Paper overview

In the lead up to the 2007 Presidential election in France, Nicolas Sarkozy led a strong debate on the need to reform France’s higher education system. He argued France needed to tackle many long taboo issues such as student selection and free university education.  He promised to give France’s universities the tools, responsibilities and freedoms enjoyed by their international counterparts, not only to enable them to compete on the global stage and but also to better meet the needs of France’s workforce.

Yet, thus far, the Sarkozy/Fillon Government has failed to realise the ambitious commitments made by Sarkozy, the candidate. The Loi relative aux libertés et responsabilités des universités passed in August 2007. While it achieved far more than earlier reform attempts by previous administrations, the final law was greatly watered down from its first draft.

The 2007 law was accompanied by an unprecedented increase in public funding for the higher education sector: a mammouth 10 billion euros. In exchange for this increase in funding, the Law’s most immediate impact was to require each university to reduce the membership of university governing boards [Conseils de Surveillance] from a maximum of 60 to 30.  Sarkozy’s promises to introduce selection and withdraw State funding for courses were rapidly dropped.

However, the Law set the context for greater reform: it gave universities the option and encouragement to become more independent from the State. It gave them the power to make decisions regarding personnel and course offerings. With some caveats, it shifted responsibility for managing budgets from the State to universities themselves.

Cutlurally, it had even more significant benefits by tightening the relationship between universities and their teaching and administration staff, making university leaders responsible for the good management of the university, and imposing greater accountability for the financial operations of the university.

More important than the 2007 Law was the decision to change the underlying funding mechanism taken in December 2008.  Long derided as inadequate and unjust the Système analytique des répartitions des moyens, had lost all claim to being simple and even-handed, tarnished by the State’s failure to make hard decisions and over fifteen years’ political manipulation.

The paper sets out many features of the Australian higher education system, which is made up of 37 public universities and 2 private universities. Australia’s students compete for entry based on their performance at senior high school, and for two decades, have been required to contribute to the costs of their study. On average, they contribute around one third the cost of their studies. This has ensured steadily increased funding to the sector and has brought a number of unforeseen benefits such as a lowering of the student drop out rate. It is a system which was introduced by the Labor Government in the 1980s and modified by the Liberal Governments from 1996 throuogh to 2007. It has been adopted in a number of countries, including recently in the United Kingdom.

The paper sets out those aspects of the reform programme pursued by the Liberal Government between 2003 and 2006 which could, with appropriate modification, be adopted in France.

It proposes a learning and teaching performance fund as a mechanism for rewarding teaching excellence. While requiring evaluation of the teaching staff across universities, this information is gathered by the State, together with data on student success and employment outcomes, in order to reward excellence in teaching.  The findings of the Australian Learning and Teaching Performance Fund, which rewards excellence by discipline area, has become an important tool in the marketing of universities and their attraction of students. It does not have a direct relationship to the salaries and teaching/research mix of university academic personnel.

The Fund is complemented by the creation of a National Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education and a series of prestigeous national teaching awards. These initiatives have been well received by the higher education sector in Australia. They have lifted standards and increased competition and differentiation between universities. This strikes a strong contrast with France’s current intractable debate over the evaluation of teaching and the role of the university academic.

The paper further proposes more rigorous changes to university administration including increased greater devolution of the responsibility for managing staff (who are not public servants in Australia) and measures to improve the efficiency and accountability of public spending in higher education. There is ample evidence of financial waste in French universities, which ought to adopt some private sector methods of accountability and objectives of good governance and efficient expenditure.