Saturday, May 31, 2014

The evolution of higher education

After a few months of silence, a short blog post to indicate a few web links that I found interesting, rising concern about the evolution of higher education.

In February 2014, Counterpunch published a series of remarks by Noam Chomsky under the title On Academic Labor. (I found it first on Alternet, under the alternate title How America's Great University System Is Getting Destroyed.)

More recently (May 2014), the New York Times published an editorial, Fat-Cat Administrators at the Top 25, where they quote a report from the Institute for Policy Studies indicating that "student debt and low-wage faculty labor are rising faster at state universities with the highest-paid presidents."

In fact, I had been made aware of the problem by a few posts from the blog The Homeless Adjunct, notably this post from 2012 that clearly explains how the American university system was killed in five easy steps:
  1. Defund the university system;
  2. Deprofessionalize and impoverish the  professors;
  3. Install a managerial/administrative class who take over governance of the university;
  4. Move in corporate culture and corporate money;
  5. Destroy the students.
This probably looks a radical point of view, and had looked a bit radical to me at that time. Except that it is really how it now happens in France where we are clearly somewhere in between steps 3 and 4. Of course, the fact that our university system is mainly public delays the process a little bit, but look:
  1. Decisive progress towards defunding was made in 2009 by the Sarkozy-Pécresse LRU-law. While the acronym stands for Liberty and Responsability of Universities, this law has been infamously referred to Autonomy of Universities. The French public universities are now allocated a global budget by the State, which they are now supposed to manage as they wish, except that the allocated budget is insufficient, and that they have almost no control of whatever. Many universities are on the edge of defaulting. So what we have under the eyes is nothing but a defunding of the system disguised as a change of allocation model.
  2. The number of permanent positions is sharply decreasing. Of course, the age-pyramid of the present professors is also a cause for this evolution, since almost all baby-boomers have now retire. But the decrease is not at all the same in all fields—for example, this year, there were many more open positions in applied mathematics than in pure mathematics. Probably, when it comes about cutting positions, the "applied"-color makes it nicer for university boards. Probably too, applied mathematicians have been better at explaining their rôle in society.
  3. Meanwhile, the administration is getting fatter. To manage the global budget, it has been necessary to hire full-time "managers". And to be able to attract them, it seems that their pay has nothing to do with the usual range among French public servants. At the same time, a new law reorganizes the higher-education system by forcing universities (as well as our innumerous engineering schools) to regroup themselves. This will create enormous beasts that will look like the Lernean Hydra. For example, the Paris-Saclay University regroups 22 higher education schools, among which 2 universities and 10 "grandes écoles"; it will host around 50.000 students and more than 10.000 professors and researchers! No doubt that it will require a heavy bureaucracy to manage this high number of people. And since we're split in many institutions, it will be hard to have the voice of academic freedom be listened to.
  All of this is very depressing...