Research programming law: towards a polarization of the university world


In France, although free and secular education is enshrined in the 1946 Constitution as a “duty of the State”, a growing number of exceptions allow higher education institutions to set tuition fees of several thousands of euros. They now concern a fifth of students , and should quickly expand with the drastic (+1 600%) and generalized increase in registration fees for non-European students ( “Bienvenue en France” plan ).

The growing importance of these tuition fees is gradually increasing the disparity in the funding of institutions, following their ability to attract students paying the highest fees. On the research side too, funding is obtained on an increasingly competitive basis: the State offers a section of funding on a subject and calls on institutions to submit research projects to it. As with registration fees, some establishments take this funding more often than others.

The Research Programming Law (LPR) could mark an important step in this process of transformation of higher education and research (ESR), by reaffirming the priority given to international competition in the field of research, aiming at benefits in terms of innovation, and the conquest of new market shares for students in international migration.

This global competition mainly concerns about ten French establishments, and relegates to the background the efforts of all the other establishments ensuring most of the massification of access to higher education.

A posteriori funding

If the LPR marks a decisive step in this process, it is not because of an “unprecedented effort” for research, but because of the correlation between evaluation and funding that it inaugurates. A correlation promoted by the new president of HCERES (High council for the evaluation of research and higher education), Thiery Coulhon , which will lead to a time reversal in the funding of research, with similar and complementary effects higher registration fees for higher education.

Instead of funding research upstream, as is the case with funding through calls for projects, but also for recurring funding, the LPR is initiating a posteriori funding for research, based on the evaluation of its productions. , as well as registration fees are only collected once registrations have been completed. In both cases, they are monetary compensation for an activity carried out or in progress.

This time reversal is decisive in marketing in that it makes the players (institutions, teams, researchers) assume the full cost of economic uncertainty. The Covid-19 epidemic has already illustrated this where higher education is the most commodified: institutions that depend the most on registration fees are led to drastically reduce their programs and lay off workers, in particular those who have bet on international migration students.

Concentration of resources

We are witnessing here an economic phenomenon of primitive accumulation, which the LPR could accelerate. The institutions best positioned today from the point of view of the evaluation of research, those retained by the Shanghai ranking, will see their funding increase automatically, the funding coming to validate a posteriori their research already carried out.

Just as competitive funding through calls for projects concentrated an increasing part of research resources, funding through evaluation will concentrate the residue of previously recurrent funding.

With a leverage effect enabled by the time reversal, the most solvent and enterprising institutions can now take on debt to initiate new fields of research or position themselves quickly on emerging themes, all the more easily as the LPR will make it possible to have recourse to more flexible contracts.

The two sides of this concentration of resources, funding through the evaluation of research on the one hand and accumulation of registration fees on the other hand, are already linked: research plays a major role in establishing rankings such as that of Shanghai. .

The inclusion in the mechanisms of evaluation, all the more active since the establishments have to gain from it, contributes to the polarization of the sector, by increasing the gap between the first and the others, at the level of reputation but especially materially, in economic terms, since evaluation is correlated with funding.

The LPR addresses itself explicitly to a relatively narrow part of French higher education: the “scientists, teams, laboratories, the most efficient establishments on an international scale”, in the words of the CEO of the CNRS Antoine Petit .

Author Bios: Hugo Harari-Kermadec is aLecturer in Economics of Education at Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay – Université Paris-Saclay and Melanie Sargeac is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Paris Nanterre University