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French university professors decry a failing system

Five years after a controversial reform granted France’s public universities greater autonomy over budget, staff, curriculum and funding, professors seem to be anything but happy. takes a closer look at their complaints.


Although the classroom in which she teaches is brand new, Nathalie Montoya, a professor of sociology at Paris Diderot University, is not happy with her working conditions.

“We have a beautiful facility here, but there’s no heat,” the 35-year-old Montoya said, seated next to a radiator.

American and British universities continue to dominate the yearly rankings of the 500 best institutions of higher learning around the world, with only 20 French schools on the list (and the first of those, University of Paris-Sud, coming in 37th).

The university’s recently opened campus in the southeastern 13th district of the French capital may be spiffy on the outside, but several factors have brought university personnel to the breaking point.

Last month, several professors and researchers penned an op-ed in left-wing daily newspaper Libération, denouncing the deterioration of France’s public universities and enumerating their grievances. Chief among them were poorly equipped classrooms, libraries being shut down and insufficient funds.

Many blame the dire situation on the controversial 2007 “Pécresse Law” (named after Valérie Pécresse, former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s minister of higher education and research), a reform intended to rejuvenate French universities by giving them greater autonomy in managing tasks that had previously been handled by the government: overseeing budgets, hiring professors, designing courses and seeking additional funding from the private sector.

But the reform has done little to improve the stature or functioning of the French university system, according to those who work within it.

Nathalie Montoya
Nathalie Montoya

“We’ve hit rock bottom,” Montoya said. “Soon there will be 50 students in my seminars, whereas there were only 25 before. We’re told to do the best we can with the means we have. So we try to manage, but the level of teaching suffers.”

‘We’re becoming machines’

One of the most frequently cited complaints about the law is that money for salaries is now given to university presidents to allocate whereas previously the government paid professors directly. Often the amount given to the president is not enough to cover the salaries of the university’s professors, some of whom are better paid because of their seniority.

“The result is that university presidents now replace seasoned professors who retire with [less experienced] teachers who cost less,” said Patrice Vermeren, head of the philosophy department at University of Paris 8, located in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis. “So the quality of the professors has declined.”

The university presidents are also pushing professors to launch research programmes that are likely to attract outside funding. “Whereas we used to spend our time doing our own work, now we’re always preparing commissioned projects that are constantly being evaluated,” Vermeren said. “We’re becoming machines.”

Once focused on teaching, advising students and publishing articles, French university professors today are forced to tackle time-consuming projects that may lure funds but often don’t lie within their area of expertise – or ever see the light of day.

“I spent a month working on an EU-funded project about violence against women, which was ultimately scrapped,” recounted Azadeh Kian, a political science and philosophy professor at Paris Diderot University. “I could have been spending all that time on my own research.”

Kian spent many years teaching in the United States – known for its lavishly endowed and expensive universities – and was therefore optimistic about the 2007 reform, which was partly intended to push French universities toward the rigour and prestige associated with their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. “I was in favour of these new incentives in France, where professors who are content to teach their classes and go home and those who actually get involved in research are treated the same way,” Kian said. “But the reform did not come with the money needed to deliver on its ambitions.”

From Foucault to missing windows

Patrice Vermeren
Patrice Vermeren

Since there is barely enough money to go around, “the various disciplines are now in competition, with each department trying to pick off a teaching slot from another”, Vermeren explained. The philosophy department that Vermeren heads at University of Paris 8 was founded in 1969 by Michel Foucault and once drew other members of the French intelligentsia, like Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou, to teaching positions. Now, with 150 undergraduate students and twice as many enrolled in Master's and Doctorate programmes, the department has only three classrooms – two of which have missing windows – at its disposal.

Indeed, subjects like philosophy have been somewhat marginalised by the Pécresse Law, which prioritised the development of disciplines liable to attract private funding. Out of 300 philosophy students currently working on their Master's or Doctoral theses at Paris 8, only one or two were able to secure research funding of €1,250 per month. “Today we’re told that Ph.D students must be paid,” Kian said. “But who, in the private sector, is going to pay a philosophy student? It makes no sense.”

Montoya, the young professor at Paris Diderot, shares that frustration. “The amount of bureaucratic red tape and the endless levels of hierarchy have become absurd,” she said. “It’s not necessarily the reform that we need to get rid of, but the logic behind it. By importing corporate methods and management into the world of academia, our profession is losing its meaning.”


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