May 12, 2006

The solution to higher education problems in France? Capitalism, of course

Reports in the US media on state-funded services in Europe almost universally pick up on the same theme: X in country Y is overused, disorganized, a inflexible relic of outmoded democratic socialism (though that last term will rarely be used). The solution is always capitalist in one way or another -- free market 'reforms' or privatization. Little evidence is given to bolster this diagnosis. This piece on the university system in France is no different.

A former French education minister talks about the problem in a fairly general way: "we simply don't invest enough. Universities are poor. They're not a priority either for the state or the private sector. If we don't reverse this trend, we will kill the new generation." By contrast, the problem identified by the writer for the Times is that "the country's university system guaranteed a free — or almost free — college education to every high school graduate who passed the baccalauréat exam. University enrollment soared. The value of a bachelor's degree plummeted." That final sentence is left completely vague, unanalyzed and unsupported.

Here's the suggested solution:

The practice in the United States of private endowments providing a large chunk of college budgets is seen as strange in France. Tuition is about $250 a year, hardly a sufficient source of income for colleges.

But asking the French to pay more of their way in college seems out of the question. When the government proposed a reform in 2003 to streamline curriculums and budgets by allowing each university more flexibility and independence, students and professors rebelled.

First, tuition isn't a sufficient source of income for American universities, either; it varies from school to school, but is usually covers less than half the budget. An endowment, funded by private and corporate donations, makes up the bulk of the revenue of most private college; public schools receive funding from the state and often have large research faculties that bring in government money.

Second, what exactly does "flexibility and independence" mean here? Prima facie, it has nothing to do with budgetary woes. The writer clearly doesn't mean them literally; she's talking about flexibility and independence in hiring and firing, charging students higher tuitition rates, being more selective about admissions, and being locations for investment by the wealthy.

Another problem is identified: "Professors lack the standing and the salaries of the private sector. A starting instructor can earn less than $20,000 a year; the most senior professor in France earns about $75,000 a year." This means university professors in France are paid about the same as public school teachers in this country, but live in a social system in which it's actually possible to live a lean but comfortable life off $20k. And let's not overlook the fact that graduate students in this country -- those of us who are starting to pursue careers in academia -- make much less than $20k a year. In no country does anyone become an academic for the prestige and financial success.

The criteria for success for college graduates are also presented in a skewed, pro-capitalist fashion:

Officials, entrepreneurs, professors and students alike agree that too many students are stuck in majors like sociology or psychology that make it difficult to move into a different career in a stratified society like France, given the country's troubled economy.

No-one is quoted.

[Prime Minister] de Villepin ... promised more money and more flexibility, saying that as in the United States, a student with a master's degree in philosophy should be able to become a financial analyst.

Because that's what getting a college degree is all about: being able to become a financial analyst. Of course.

1 comment:

MosBen said...

And is that last quote even true? I never looked into financial, uh, analyzation, but I can say that my English degree didn't exactly have people knocking down my door to give me jobs. Did it prepare me better for post-graduate schooling? Maybe, but I don't think it's the case that what you major in in the US somehow doesn't matter because we're all prepared, at a basic level, to go right to Wall Street after graduation.