A French Revolution for the Third Millennium?: The Reimagining of Higher Education in Contemporary France

Colloquium | May 6 | 4-5:30 p.m. | 1215 Berkeley Way West

 Grace Neville

 Human Resources

In 2009 the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, invited two highly respected, leading French politicians, Michel Rocard and Alain Juppé, both former Prime Ministers, one centre-left and the other centre-right, to identify the national priorities to be followed over the ensuing years. The Rocard-Juppé report was accepted by the French parliament with immediate effect. Most of its initial budget of over 35 billion euros was earmarked for higher education and research.

In 2012, I was invited to become a member of the international jury at the French National Research Agency (ANR / Agence Nationale de la Recherche) charged with making recommendations to the Prime Minister on the future of higher education and research in the context of this initiative (initial budget c. 16 billion euros). At the ANR, I have also chaired two international juries responsible for encouraging pedagogical innovation in higher education in France (budget c. 200 million euros). To date, the Prime Minister has accepted all recommendations of these committees.

For historical reasons, over the centuries, the French higher education sector has been deeply fragmented, with expertise spread over many disparate institutions. In recent times, after the 1968 student riots, President Charles de Gaulle split the Sorbonne into 13 separate universities. The current reimagining of the French higher education sector is tackling this issue of fragmentation by encouraging universities and the elite ‘grandes écoles’ to collaborate more closely and even to merge. I chair the Strategic Orientation Committee of Sorbonne Université, a new university founded on 1 January 2018 resulting from the fusion of the former leading humanities university in the country, l’Université Paris Sorbonne (formerly l’Université de Paris 4) and the leading science / medical university, l’Université Pierre et Marie Curie (formerly l’Université de Paris 6).

Unsurprisingly, such a profound transformation has generated much debate and even criticism. In a country that enshrines the concept of ‘égalité’ in its constitution, there is concern that competition between institutions for extensive funding will lead to them being ranked not just internationally but nationally. In particular, there is unease that the ‘heavy hitting’ Paris establishments will outshine their regional counterparts. The increased emphasis on marketing and commercialisation has led to fears of education becoming a product rather than a right. The oft-voiced hope that the elite ‘grandes écoles’ will collaborate more closely with universities has led some lobby groups, especially in the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique, to resist such calls.

That said, the impact of these profound transformations is beginning to be felt at different levels: international rankings, international hirings, individualised salaries, interdisciplinarity, an emphasis on excellence in pedagogy, the provision of programmes through English, and a wider and more flexible choice of programs for students.

About the speaker. Grace Neville holds a double first class honours degree in French and Irish from University College Cork (National University of Ireland), a masters in French from l’Université de Caen, and a doctorate in comparative literature (French and Irish) from l’Université de Lille. She is Professor Emerita of French at University College Cork where she was Vice-President for Teaching and Learning and Director of the National Academy for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (2008-12). Her research interests/publications encompass Franco-Irish relations (medieval-modern), women’s writings, and language history. Since retiring from UCC in 2012, she has been an invited member of the international juries at the French National Research Agency (Agence Nationale de la Recherche) charged with making recommendations to the French Prime Minister on the current multi-billion euro transformation of higher education in France. She has chaired two committees on pedagogical innovation at the Agence Nationale de la Recherche, and is Chair of the Strategic Orientation Committee at Sorbonne Université. She is also an institutional evaluator for the French national review agencies AERES/HCERES. She holds two French state awards: the Légion d’Honneur and the Palmes Académiques.