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France’s universities trail rest of Europe in EUA autonomy rankings

France’s universities are among the least ‘autonomous’ in Europe, according to a report by the European University Association.

The study, published on 15 November, (see News in brief, via link below) attempts to measure how much freedom universities have from their governments, for instance to borrow money, promote staff, select students or design degree programmes. The score card ranks 28 national higher education systems in four categories. France comes in 16th position in terms of organisational autonomy, 22nd for financial autonomy, 27th for staffing autonomy, and in last place for academic autonomy.

France’s universities cannot decide on overall student numbers or admission criteria, as any student who has completed secondary education can start any mainstream bachelor degree. Danièle Hérin, president of University Montpellier 2, says that France’s universities have little flexibility to open new study programmes. Her university, for example, can only submit degree proposals for government accreditation once every four years.

France’s centre-right research minister Laurent Wauquiez says the country’s scores are low because the national reform of the universities has yet to take effect. The reform law was adopted in 2007 and the universities have been given more autonomy in waves since 2009. “Universities still have to take full ownership of their new competencies,” Wauquiez said in a written statement to Research Europe. Hérin says: “The ministry has been wise not to rush the reform. Our personnel have to adapt; in particular, learning to manage a payroll takes time. But now we have to go further.”

But Emmanuel Saint-James, researcher at University Paris 6 and president of campaign group Sauvons La Recherche, says France’s scores are actually a positive sign because autonomy, as defined by the report, isn’t a desirable goal in the first place. “The term ‘autonomy’ is a politicians’ buzzword. The opposite of autonomy is dependence and obviously nobody is in favour of dependence,” Saint-James says. “Higher education is not a marketable activity that has to compete against other countries,” he adds.

Wauquiez concedes that France’s “specific” approach to higher education entails some level of state oversight. “Autonomy is our goal, but it shouldn’t mean sacrificing our republican vision,” he says. “Autonomy must be part of a well-defined national framework.”