Is the new French research and education reform going far enough?

Soon after his election a year ago, President François Hollande announced a new reform of Universities and Research and mandated Geneviève Fioraso, the French minister of Higher Education and Research (HER), to prepare a new law. She organised a large consultation of the HER community in the summer of 2012, under the leadership of a committee presided by Nobel Prize laureate Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. In the second part of this series on French research and higher education system, EuroScientist looks into the details of the proposed reforms.

Consultation outcome

As a result, a number of important recommendations concerning both research and education stemmed from the December 2012 report summarising the findings of the consultation.

Among the key points related to research, it revealed that “too much of researcher’s time is dedicated to non-research tasks” and that “it is necessary to safeguard labs’ freedom to decide”. What is more, the findings also emphasised that the reforms since 2002 had created too many superstructures such as funding organisations, cooperation structures evaluation agency, etc. There was also a suggestion to alter university governance to increase democracy and collegiality in decision making. Several propositions addressed the need to further support the transfer of research towards innovative solutions. The report also underlined the importance of the dialogue between science and society.

Regarding possible reforms in education, it identified a weakness in the transition from secondary education to university, suggesting an improvement in this area. New issues such as Open access and massive online open course, dubbed MOOCs, were the object of special attention.

Shift at research and higher education level

Based on the outcome of the consultation, the Government drafted a new law, which was voted on 26th June 2013. It rubbers stamps the trend towards a greater autonomy for Universities and introduces the following major changes.

First, it establishes a national research strategy, in harmony with the European agenda Horizon 2020. As a tell-tale sign of the recommendations, the words Europe or European appears 31 times in the final consultation report. In particular, the new law outlines societal priorities such as climate change, clean, secure and efficient energy, industrial renewal, health, food security and demographic challenge, mobility and sustainable urban systems, digital society, innovative society.

Second, it directs that universities, elite engineering schools—so-called grandes écoles—and research centres be gathered into 30 Communities of universities and research establishments. The purpose of this measure is to harmonise higher education and research within a region. However, the actual structure is left to individual groups to decide and they can simply be cooperation structures, or lead to mergers.

Third, the new law reinforce collegiality and democracy within Universities by creating an academic council and giving it a role in decision making. Presently, the board of trustees—a majority of whom are elected from among academic staff, non-academic staff and students—has sole decisional making power on every aspect of university life, with a very strong executive power bestowed upon the university President.

Finally, the evaluation agency will become an evaluation authority, which will oversee procedures, rather than perform actual evaluations.

Stakeholders’ criticisms

Expectedly, those close to the conservative opposition are very critical of the project, claiming that it is destroying the progress that the previous government has fostered. More surprisingly, there are many criticisms coming from the left, among the ranks of the current government supporters.

Indeed, academic staff and researchers’ trade unions are disappointed. They were expecting a stronger reversal of policies, going back to the pre-2002 situation. They are critical of several aspects: the low level of democracy in the management of universities, the high level of power transferred to Communities of universities, which, they argue, will be even less democratic than before, the expectations that a large share of the financing will come from project-based funding as opposed to more stable funding sources, the strong emphasis on innovation at the expense of basic research, the confirmed trend towards more autonomy for universities.

It may seem paradoxical that a large part of the academic community would be opposed to a move towards greater autonomy and less control by the government! What it shows is the distrust towards university presidents, and the fear that increased autonomy will mean less funding from the government.

On the other hand, research Professors attached to research performing organisations like the National Centre for Scientific Research, CNRS, fear that the specific strengths that those organisations, which had been under attack by a more University-centred policy and the growing weight of the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR), a funding agency created in 2006, will be further weakened under the new law.

Meanwhile, some fear that the increased democracy will make universities less manageable. They had hoped that the reform would be more ambitious. They were expecting it to go further in the direction of a more diversified system. Ideally, they had hoped that only some universities would be acknowledged as research universities while others would be mostly teaching oriented.

Finally, the students’ union is, rightly, fairly happy with the law. Indeed, it has given them a greater role in universities governance. Because this role goes much beyond what is usually within the realm of student governance—including voting rights on rules for exams granting degrees—this not very reassuring news!

Parliamentary discussion

The current financial situation of the French state makes it very difficult to increase funding for HER. It remains somewhat weak compared to other advanced countries. Many universities are in deep financial problems. This is partly due to the fact that the increased autonomy, granted in 2007, did not come with adequate resources to acquire the badly needed management skill required to face this new setup. As a result, the little financial breathing space that the HER ministry obtained from the budget ministry is used to reduce the deficit. And not for new projects.

Meanwhile, most of the media coverage has been on aspects such as the introduction of courses taught in English, which raised a wave of opposition among French language preservation activists. This diversion from the key aspects of this in-depth reform is to be short-lived. But it reflects the present sense of insecurity that many French citizens feel in this time of globalisation. It shows yet again that for the public opinion and the media, higher education and research are not a major concern.


By addressing both needs to protect research systems inherited from the past and to fulfil the demands of the future, the new law appears to have reached the only politically acceptable compromise. Much of its effect will depend on how the law is enforced and how the academic community, those in the educational system and institutions use it. We will continue this series of articles, by providing future contributions addressing in-depth issues pertaining to research and higher education, such as how to improve the production of knowledge and its circulation in modern European societies.

Jean-Pierre Alix, Adviser to CNRS General Director for Science and Member of the Governing Board of EuroScience

Martin Andler, Professor of Mathematics at the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin and Vice-President of EuroScience

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by the French Ministry of higher education and research

Featured illustration catpion: Geneviève Fioraso, the French minister of Higher Education and Research at the Senate, when the law was examined.

Jean-Pierre Alix

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2 thoughts on “Is the new French research and education reform going far enough?”

  1. We thank Alain Trautmann for his interesting comments. The point that we were trying to make, for an audience who is not familiar with the specific intricacies of the French situation and often disoriented by the constant reforms that our ESR system is going through, was that there was basically no agreement on where to go. We were not primarily trying to convey our own point of view on these reforms. For instance, I certainly agree with Trautmann’s disappointment that the law does not make provisions towards a real simplification of our multilayered system. This might perhaps show that the discussion cannot be caricatured into a black (thatcherian)/white (progressive) opposition of policies.

    Trautmann’s comment confirms indeed what we are saying : a number of researchers think that the reforms should have moved the system in a completely different direction. Others have completely divergent opinions.

    Trautmann makes a strong point about the lack of stable jobs. This of course is a very serious issue ; we did not address it because it is not within the range of the law, which concerns structural issues. There are two aspects here :
    1° what is the proper balance between stable jobs and short term contracts ? Whether at the French or at the European level, there are more and more short term contracts, ranging from 3 months to 5 years, and this is clearly not making academic careers very attractive; 2° the overall number of jobs openings, which is linked to budgetary decisions.
    The Euroscientist should certainly take this issue up for France and other countries, as it has for Southern Europe !

  2. I find the comment of the new French law on HER by JP Alix and M. Andler very conventional and disappointing.

    The title itself is strange. Asking whether the reform goes far enough implies that it is supposed to go in the right direction, but maybe not far enough. As if there was no other alternative, as Mrs Thatcher used to say.

    In fact, there are other alternatives, at least other problems, that have absolutely not been taken into account in the law, neither in its comment for Euroscientist.

    For instance, during the preparation of the national HER consultation, a major point that arose concerned the lack of job positions in research, with a stable status. Another one concerned the need of a real simplification of the research system (since the previous government has created a whole series of new structures that complexified it a lot):

    These two points are totally absent from the law.

    As a whole, the law is very far from what was expected. See e.g. the point of view of a physicist (not a member of a union):

    JP Alix and M. Andler write : ” Staff and researchers’ academic trade unions are disappointed. They were expecting a stronger reversal of policies, going back to the pre-2002 situation”. This is a sentence that both the former and present ministers of HER, V. Pécresse and G. Fioraso, could have said as well. It underlies the absence of serious difference between the political choices for HER of the two governments. Obviously, Alix and Andler share this Thatcherian conviction that there is no alternative.

    I certainly do not share their conviction, I have written it many times, see e.g.

    There are other alternatives, other directions. The problem is not that the law does not go far enough : it goes right in the wall.