Universities in France and their disciplinary sections: freedom or scientific constraint?


Since the Renaissance, the invention of the printing press, the Reformation, scientific progress, the industrial revolution and the division of labor have led to constant specialization and the emergence of a growing number of university disciplines over the centuries, in particular the twentieth. The French University, which encompassed four disciplines (namely theology, law, medicine and the arts), now encompasses 75 “official disciplines” in the National Council of Universities (CNU).

Multidisciplinarity is a cross-disciplinary approach. It considers an object of study by juxtaposing the points of view of each subject. Interdisciplinarity, for its part, crosses the scientific approaches of each discipline in order to study the same subject, but in a more global perspective. Finally transdisciplinarity wants to go beyond disciplinary fields in order to consider the object of study in its complexity and especially in its absolute character as a system.

In France, the monodisciplinarity of the training, recruitment and career progression of academics, as well as the remoteness of campuses from each other, do not encourage exchange between disciplines. These potential flaws can be explained by the history and organization of the university system.

The renewal of universities

At the end of the XIX th century, III th4Republic granted France modern universities. Previously, higher education in France was based more on a mosaic of grandes écoles than on the Imperial University, which in turn trained teachers.

These grandes écoles , like the Ponts et Chaussées or Polytechnique, are very centralized; they offer a multidisciplinary education, and initially aim at training polyvalent engineers who are hired by the State at the end of their training.

These engineers-scientists work in many fields, and show their limits compared to German academics admired around the world . In addition, the French system does not help to bring foreign scientists to carry out research in France. And then, the Bonapartists are wary of a multiplication of people too learned in the same places and prefer “parcellariser knowledge and separate scientists . 

The lack of true modern universities is made partly responsible for the defeat of 1870, and III e Republic wishes to draw the German university model with its campus in turmoil and teachers at the forefront in each discipline. A division of roles then takes place: in schools, the formation of elites; at the faculties, teaching and research.

The universities will be reborn on the territory and administer themselves autonomously. In 1885, they have a legal personality and Minister René Goblet creates a “faculty council” in each academy. In 1890 the faculties obtained control of their budget, and finally the law of 1896 presented by Raymond Poincaré raised the councils of the faculties to new universities. Only republican governments will not succeed in bringing the faculties together in common places, as Leon Bourgeoiswanted .

The CNU, guardian of the disciplines?

Disciplinary specificity is today at the heart of French university operations and particularly at the level of the National Council of Universities (CNU), French consultative and decision-making body responsible in particular for the management of careers of teachers-researchers. Although historically the operation of this institution de jureteachers-researchers to work in a monodisciplinary framework, we will see that de facto , they should agree to inject a dose of multidisciplinarity in their work, especially for financial reasons.

• A de jure monodisciplinarity …

The principles of freedom of higher education teachers and scientific independence ( Article L.952-2 of the Education Code) led to the granting to teacher-researchers of specific statutory guarantees and in particular a form of collective career self-management, which results in the action of the CNU. It is divided into groups and as many sections as there are “official” disciplines, namely 75 (although the numbering of the sections reaches 77, but sections 38 and 75 do not exist). Each group brings together several sections. For example, the law, economics and management group includes sections 01 “private law and criminal sciences”, 02 “public law”, 03 “history of law and institutions”, 04 “political science”, 05 “economics” and 06 “Management Science”.

Each section is a forum for consultation and decision-making. Its function is to decide on the qualification of doctors and the career of teacher-researchers. It should be noted that each section has its own way of handling the files, which can lead to very large disparities in the qualification rate.

The sections are impervious to each other. At no time do they communicate. While there was a possibility in the past to bring together several sections at the same time to deal with interdisciplinary files, this possibility has not existed since 2004 and the establishment of a permanent conference of UNCs (CP-CNU), set up as an association, to coordinate the actions of the sections. This was replaced in 2009 by a standing committee. Since 2004, “intersection” meetings, composed equally of representatives from two subsections, one subsection and one section or two sections, no longer exist. Note that the group meeting is chaired by the Minister of Higher Education and does not deal, for example, with the qualification of an interdisciplinary thesis.

Thus, researchers seeking a qualification or teacher-researchers who wish to sustain their careers are led to confine themselves to monodisciplinary research so as to correspond to the requirements of their section at the CNU. However, this de jure situation may sometimes leave a de facto place for a co-ordinated work obligation with researchers from other disciplines.

• … which could give way to a de facto pluridisciplinarity

If teacher-researchers are recruited according to their CNU sections and thus mainly on a monodisciplinary basis, they can then be called upon to open themselves to other disciplines. At the University of Lorraine, for example, each disciplinary research laboratory is attached to a cluster that includes several laboratories. The poles are all attached to the scientific council (CS) of the university. The poles, receiving monetary funds from the SC, are responsible for allocating them to the various laboratories that compose them; CS and the poles also negotiate contracts with external partners such as the Region. Budgetary funds allow the recruitment of new staff, funds related to the organization of scientific events or financial support for the publication or translation of books.

It happens however – note that this practice is common especially in provincial universities – that, funds being limited, some laboratories have to agree to organize events together or to invite representatives of other laboratories to their own events, so as to reduce costs. Interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary work thus appears. Thus, if each laboratory and therefore each researcher must defend his own interest and the advancement of his career on a monodisciplinary basis so as to meet the requirements of the CNU, he must also learn to work in good intelligence with researchers. other disciplines and open up their research in their directions. On the other hand, this practice remains limited to researchers of the same pole,

The example that we have developed above shows that even researchers attached to monodisciplinarity are led to open up to other disciplines. On the other hand, there are other teachers-researchers for whom this research of multidisciplinarity is desired, but it is not valued for their careers. From this second category of teacher-researchers arise controversies concerning the disciplinary functioning of the University and the CNU; the attempt to create a “section of criminology” at the CNU, the divisions  between  sociologists , the rivalry between the law faculties and Sciences Po are examples.

Between university and “law school”

The faculties of law and medicine, never really matched the standard of the new universities of III e Republic, because historically they work more on the model of a high school of a university.

The law school had a monopoly on the professional training of lawyers, notaries, bailiffs and various categories of public servants. And like the grandes écoles, there was in law a pluridisciplinarity that did not exist in the other faculties: in addition to law, one studied there in the same course of the history, of the economic and political sciences, of management and administration, or even political sociology.

This professional vocation will gradually fade. Indeed, from 1941 , the first forms of certificates of proficiency in the legal profession (CAPA) and the law schools (EDA) appeared, introducing a new division of roles between faculties and schools of law, and in 1945 the National School of Administration (ENA) is responsible for training future senior officials. Paradoxically, when, in the late 1960s and then in the 1980s, the university became more democratic and integrated vocational training into its priorities, the law school was no longer the vocational school it was, but it kept this reputation as a professional school that makes the law school, one of the most popular university courses by neobacheliers.

Exceeding the disciplines limited to “hard sciences”?

In the faculties of science and technology, however, after May 1968 and the economic crisis of the 1970s, some formations become more and more professional . Academic research creates more and more links with business research and development services.

In 2007, the LRU law authorizes the creation of foundations to finance university research. This opening of universities to the private sector is reflected in more relationships between researchers from some disciplines in “hard sciences” and the professional world.

It is therefore this professional aspect and the permanent quest for funding that encourages academics from the Faculty of Science to develop transversal projects, and rather applied, more and more ambitious. On the other hand, the law school is less and less multidisciplinary; it offers various courses and diplomas, each of which is more and more monodisciplinary.

Today, the decline of minority disciplines in the law school such as the history of law or political science would mark the end of this hybrid system between university and law school. In 2008, Sciences Po and its multidisciplinary training were granted the right to take the entrance examination at the law schools, a symbol.

Author Bios: Dylan Martin is a PhD student in health economics, Georges El Haddad is a PhD student in Economics and Attaché of Teaching and Research at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Management of Nancy and the Higher Institute of Administration and Management. Member of the Scientific Council of the University, Guillaume Bagard is a Contractual Doctoral Student in History of Law, Lecturer, Jordan Chicken is a Contractual doctoral student in History of Law and Julien Grandjean is a PhD student in Economics at the Office of Theoretical and Applied Economics (BETA) – Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Management of Nancy all at the University of Lorraine