Universities: how inequalities have strengthened in France and the United Kingdom


The higher education systems in France and the United Kingdom have experienced significant turbulence in recent years. Establishments, students and staff appear increasingly vulnerable. Universities are in budgetary difficulty , students are struggling with debt and poverty , and academic staff are facing a loss of purchasing power (salaries and pensions) and increasing precariousness.

On both sides of the Channel, teaching unions are mobilizing. In the United Kingdom , they are demanding improvements in wages and working conditions, highlighting internal contradictions in the discourse which links high registration fees to maintaining quality service. In France, the protest focuses on the denunciation of a policy of competition within the profession, favored by the Research Programming Law which contributes to the development of internal inequalities in the higher education system.

These relatively similar debates in France and the United Kingdom concerning academic staff revolve around two major questions:

This convergence of problems may be surprising when we know the structural differences that exist between the two systems: the highly marketized and decentralized British model is almost term for term opposed to the centralized and almost free French model (although 25% of French students are now enrolled in private higher education and that substantial registration fees are now in place in certain establishments).

However, despite these differences, we show in a recent paper that the developments of the academic professions of the two countries followed parallel historical evolutions, characterized by similar responses to the transformations induced by the massification begun in the 1960s and reinforced at the beginning of the 1960s. 1990.

From the era of academic elites to the managerial age

Over the medium term (the last century), three periods emerge which correspond to successive organizational configurations of the academic profession, linked to changes in the context.

The first period can be described as the era of academic elites . It represents the traditional mode of (re)foundation of contemporary universities. From the 19th century to the Second World War, it was characterized by the permanence of existing staff, with limited recourse to replacement labor, the vast majority of whom would eventually join the group of incumbents. In these small systems, the profession forms a community within which careers are linear, even if their rhythm varies over time (significant recruitment limits the entry possibilities of the next generation, creating cyclical blockages). The labor market is both closed and Malthusian.

The era of Fordist massification which followed during the second half of the 20th century was marked by the increase in the number of permanent employees, supplemented by an increased use of contract employees (particularly after the crisis of the 1970s). In this new configuration, the number of the latter exceeds that of permanent staff, and careers can be temporarily faster (depending on recruitment needs), but tend to be longer (access to permanent positions is more uncertain). The labor market is open to the extent that a significant fraction of contract staff has the possibility (but not the guarantee) of joining the permanent staff group. This configuration is characterized by a stronger link between differentiation of academic work between establishments and professional segmentation.

Finally, the managerial age of the second massification of the 1990s is associated with the emergence of a new category of marginalized academics. Permanent and contractual staff have been supplemented by a third, increasingly numerous category of precarious workers, working on a piece-rate basis and without contracts, even of medium duration.

Permanent workers are no longer the majority in the United Kingdom (45%). In France, the number of precarious workers called “temporary workers” is higher than the number of permanent and contractual workers. Two labor markets then coexist: one based on the model of the Fordist era, which combines a sufficiently favorable permanent/contractual ratio so that it can be described as open. The other which brings together a number of contract workers and all precarious workers, on the fringes of the first, and without links allowing access to the permanent group.

Inequalities between higher education establishments

The consequences of this “third moment” of the system are identical in France and the United Kingdom. The precariousness of part of the workforce, professional segmentation and sectoral differentiation are the main characteristics, consequences of the strong tensions produced by a massive increase in students in a context of unevenly distributed constrained resources.

The deterioration of the ratio between teaching staff and students constitutes the most immediate mark. It is not the simple result of demographic variations (the number of students fluctuates over a different time frame from that of the teaching force) but also and above all an effect of financial pressure .

The use of precarious employment emerges as the main adjustment variable, strongly contributing to the segmentation of the profession. In France, the reduction in the number of permanent staff involved in both teaching and research coincides first with the rise in the number of permanent teaching staff only, followed by massive recruitment of “temporary workers”.

In the United Kingdom, the growth of staff under fixed-term contracts and staff paid on a piece-rate basis has made it possible to absorb massification in a context of austerity and increasing financialization. In both systems, the question of inequalities becomes central.

This segmentation process is also favored by a phenomenon of institutional differentiation common to the two countries. It is then no longer just a question of access to higher education in general but of the type of institution in which studies are pursued.

Differences in student supervision rates between universities, or between universities and other establishments, reflect differences in resources per student (financial, but also social and cultural) and contribute to reinforcing social stratification. The combination then takes place between the social characteristics of students and inequalities in funding of establishments.

In the United Kingdom, the difference in resources and prestige between traditional and new universities has resulted in a significant disparity in student ratios. Inequalities are even more pronounced when considering the elite Russell Group universities . In France, inequalities are primarily between schools and universities, but also increasingly between the universities themselves .

Finally, the most socially advantaged populations benefit from the best financed and best equipped educational institutions. Conversely, establishments which welcome the mass public benefit from fewer financial resources which further affect their function of social expansion of higher education.

Systems growing on unchanged foundations

This similar historical development leading to the establishment of a dual market raises the question of the conditions under which higher education systems are transformed. It particularly allows us to understand the way in which the successive massifications of the systems were handled, independently of the way in which they are organized.

The two systems share a context of restriction of public financing. In France, this leads to chronic underfinancing at the origin of the current crisis. In the United Kingdom , this allows us to understand how the increase in registration fees has replaced public funding, instead of allowing an increase in resources, amplifying inequalities within and between establishments.

In both countries, the choice of the most economical solution (staff casualization) was made without taking into account the risks of growing inequalities that it entails, both for the academic profession and for students. In no way has the question of structural and institutional reform been considered. It is therefore through a simple growth of unchanged but increasingly poorly financed systems that the two countries have aimed to produce the graduates increasingly necessary for a knowledge society.

However, resolving inequalities of opportunity in higher education requires a combined revival of public investment and a reorganization of higher education systems and their academic staff.

Author Bios: Emmanuelle Picard is a Professor of Contemporary History, specialist in higher education and research at ENS de Lyon and Vincent Carpentier is a Reader in History of Education at UCL