France: Increasing privatisation of Higher Education

 

The article below has been submitted to the Marxist Student Federation by two student activists at the Political Science University in Bordeaux. It details the increasing privatisation taking place at the university and the limited nature of the movement that has taken place against it thus far. The authors point out that simple denunciations of what is taking place are not sufficient – it’s necessary to understand the deeper economic processes that create these circumstances.

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1228207701203The end of exams and the start of the summer is normally a time for celebration. However, at the Political Science University in Aix-en-Provence, France, July 2014 instead saw four academic staff quit their administrative roles in protest over the institution’s recently forged links with overseas, private institutions to outsource Masters Courses and enrol students at extortionate prices. This has brought France’s entire prestigious network of Political Science universities into disrepute with institutions in Lille, Lyon, Rennes, Strasbourg, Toulouse and Saint-Germain-en-Laye seeking to exclude Aix-en-Provence from their collective competition. In response to this potential downgrade of their University, 150 students mobilised outside Aix-en-Provence demanding an end to these underhand deals and the resignation of the director, Christian Duval. The protestors pinned a degree certificate to a coffin and left it outside the doors of the institute.

The controversy stems from Aix-en-Provence’s decision to offer Masters Programmes in conjunction with overseas, private institutions. That these programmes require tacit contracts and extortionate registration and course fees suggests that the University has been selling Masters Degrees as a form of funding. To make matters worse, the Masters Programmes have been described by the academic staff who quit in July as ‘taught by amateurs’, and in the case of the particular Masters Programme ‘Management of Strategic Information’ they suggested that the teachers have ‘no legitimacy in the domain of strategy itself nor in the professional sphere to assume such responsibilities’. Not only will these programmes cost a lot, but the content will not be taught by anyone claiming the title, and thus legitimacy, of professor, master, lecturer or researcher. Through such programmes, Aix-en-Provence awarded 200 external students and 280 internal students with qualifications in 2014.

By way of explanation for their resignation, the four academic staff stated that this new strategy would transform ‘the public, prestigious establishment into a pseudo-Business school where private interests are meddling more and more’.

The first big problem with outsourcing programmes and students lies in the undermining of the University’s status as a Grand Ecole (the equivalent of a Russell Group University in the UK). The prestigious Sciences Po (Political Science) degree and the University’s title of public excellence cannot be maintained through this dishonourable conduct. The uproar generated by the four staff members, the other Political Science Universities and the student protests exposes the core concern of higher education: prestige. Prestige is nowhere more pertinent than in this network of Political Science universities. The majority of their students enrol at these institutions with the objective of obtaining a decent degree with which they can bag a successful career in politics and/or economics. It’s clear that this affair strikes a nerve with those relying on the good reputation of their University and degree.

The second problem exposed by this incident is the diminishing availability of funding for Higher education. As academic institutions have to look elsewhere to finance themselves, their autonomy is placed in a vulnerable position. This is highly contradictory of the French government, because in 2007 they enshrined in law the autonomy of educative establishments. The Minister for National Education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, stated that ‘autonomy means more freedom and more responsibility for French universities’ in an attempt to justify the government’s austerity. In 2006, 80% of Aix-En-Provence’s funding came from the government but today it only accounts for 40%. These universities have little other option but to turn to big companies and banks, who in turn manipulate research and the qualifications offered to students to fulfil their own interests.

Training, education and teaching are the supply to the very particular demands of the labour market. Elitism in teaching reinforces bourgeois social structures and as a result higher education is not critical – it produces the employees required without asking why. Rather than simply denouncing the privatization of education and reclaiming a public system by mobilising the ‘least bad’ members of this uncritical structure, we must also try to understand the logic behind how this kind of supply-demand education functions, and eventually analyse why it has evolved in this manner – towards privatization – and to what extent this constitutes a logical evolution.

Whether public or private, education in a capitalist system answers a priori to the demands of capital.

by Chloe Krantz and Nathan Weis (translation by Lulu Shooter)