Behind the autonomy of universities, social issues?


Beyond the single question of registration fees in universities put back on the table, it seems, in spite of himself, by the candidate Emmanuel Macron , the question of the autonomy of universities constitutes one of the differences in higher education between the programs of presidential candidates.

Where candidates like Jean-Luc Mélenchon come out in favor of the repeal of the so-called “university autonomy” law put in place in 2007 by Valérie Pécresse, the latter intends a contrario, like Emmanuel Macron , strengthen this autonomy, which university presidents are also asking for.

To fully understand the terms of this debate, it is important to return above all to the history and reality of this autonomy. Questioning it through the prism of current issues around continuing education also makes it possible to measure autonomy is not limited to a managerial question but must be understood more globally, in the light of an organizational and social context.

A “long walk”

The question of autonomy was recurrent in “The long march of French universities” described by Christine Musselin, like a set of questions which, if they are still debated today, were already on the agenda . of Minister Ferry… in 1883  !

More recently, it was in 1968 ( article 3 of the Faure law ) that autonomy in financial matters was formally granted to universities, before being mentioned again with the Savary law in its article 20 , which reinforces it on the pedagogical, scientific and administrative plan. In 1986, it was with the “Devaquet” bill that the issue reappeared, following on from Jacques Chirac’s general policy speech for whom
“the principle of autonomy must be definitively implemented both at entry – when students are selected – and at exit – when diplomas are issued. Autonomy must go hand in hand with a streamlining of university structures, a decompartmentalization of teaching and research work, increased mobility of people, a new impetus given to innovation which must open up to the outside world, to industry of course, but also on international scientific cooperation”.
Even more recently, and without being exhaustive, it is in particular the LRU law (2007) which established the management autonomy of French universities, by transferring to them the management of their payroll, their jobs and for some between them, of their property assets, ( thus extending the logic of the Organic Law relating to the Finance Laws of 2001 ).

Finally, the 2020 Research Programming Law also contributes, in its own way, to developing the autonomy of universities, for example by making it possible, on an experimental basis, to recruit lecturers who are not qualified by the National Council of Universities .

However, the implementation of the law has also led university presidents to point out certain decisions that they consider contrary to this autonomy. Also, this history of university management autonomy can be put into perspective with the limits it encounters in its implementation.

Possibilities… Constraints

If the LRU law was intended to reinforce the capacity for strategic action of universities, it refers to the paradoxes of a “State Strategist” which nevertheless continues to “govern from a distance” , for example in the context of appeal competitive projects such as the Campus plan or the Future Investments Program (PIA), which allocate funding to programs deemed to be innovative.

As for the transfer of management to institutions, a priori recorded by the LRU law, it is also necessary to discuss its real scope, particularly in terms of human resources, an essential lever. Indeed, the heart of the reform, which constitutes the transfer to universities of the wage bill and employment ceilings (which limit the capacity of universities to recruit), is not enough to give all the margins claimed by the establishments. The Ministry ‘s compensation for the famous “Technical Old Age Slippage” (mechanical increase in staff costs linked to careers) is thus a recurring reason for debate, given its weight in the budgets of establishments.

In addition, the management rules for tenured staff are still influenced by previous national standards and practices , while those for contract staff are frequently inspired by them, with a concern for equal treatment, even if it means questioning the attractiveness of competitions. In 2013, the General Inspectorate noted the great reluctance of establishments in mobilizing the possibility, opened up by the LRU law, of recruiting contractual staff .

Also, the limited recourse to these new possibilities constitutes a form of “path dependence” (the fact of persisting in choices once adopted even if other, better solutions appear). This can be analyzed through the prism of the local context (for example by taking into account the impact of social dialogue within the elective organizations that are the universities), but also of a systemic and a more global and national socio-political environment. .

Continuing education resources?

From its “strategic” State perspective, the ministry sees in the development of its own resources one of the keys to the concrete implementation of autonomy. In particular, continuing university education is perceived as a “cash machine”, all the more so when public resources run out.

In recent years, however, there has been great stability in this niche. In the vocational training market, universities earn only 493 million euros . Thus, in 2019, public higher education institutions accounted for 3% of the 16.5 billion euros in turnover in the non-learning sector.

Continuing education is struggling to develop in universities. Shutterstock

This figure, which is certainly on the rise, masks a refocusing of public establishments on diploma training – short training accounting for 18% of those registered ) in continuing education at university in 2019 compared to 31% of those registered in 2009 .

And for good reason, the establishments remain largely confined to long training courses. The average duration of training provided by higher education establishments is 144 hours, compared to 14 hours for vocational training outside university, and establishments have difficulty positioning their diplomas on the specific register.

We certainly see the emergence of new academic figures , who value interdisciplinarity and the social and economic utility of academic knowledge, but the academic profession remains marked by the principles of independence, disinterestedness and the ability to self-administer. .

Moreover, the university remains predominantly focused on initial training, even more so when the student population increases sharply every year and the means per student have been falling almost continuously for ten years.

These two elements show that the action of the state can only be thought of in terms of interdependence with the universities and the academic profession, namely in its “university configuration” . Autonomy cannot be decreed, and lifelong training can only be the financial driving force on this condition.

The weight of initial training

These questions are not only related to an academic configuration but also to a societal context. Abroad, the issue of lifelong training is posed differently. Thus in Sweden, access to scholarships and loans to study can be made up to the age of 60, when the scholarships are only available to those under 28 in France, without the public financing of the resumption of long studies being developed. Moreover.

The organization of the courses is also important. Thus, in England, most students finish their initial course at the end of the Bachelor’s degree , the Master’s mainly being a later specialization in professional life.

In France, we are witnessing a massive movement towards mastering: in 2018, 55% of graduates of initial training with a higher education diploma have a diploma at least equal to the Master’s level compared to 41% in 2010. Result: the pursuit of studies long time on the labor market is very rare in France and only 14% of students there are over 25 years old (compared to 54% in Sweden for example).

This is where the French specificity lies: the university hardly finds its place on the vocational training market, because this market is built, in France, to offer mainly short training and in direct adequacy with the needs. companies. This facet of the university autonomy policy thus probably depends less on an injunction from the ministry than on a more global review of the place of long-term training in professional careers.

Finally, the cases of human resources management and continuing education are two examples that invite us to go beyond a conception of autonomy that would only be directed towards the sole issue of the freedoms and responsibilities of universities, by also apprehending it the yardstick of our society as a whole.

Author Bios: Nicholas Charles is a Sociologist at the University of Bordeaux and Romain Pierronet is CEREFIGE at the University of Lorraine