14.5.06

UNIVERSAL ACCESS, UNIVERSAL POSITIONAL ARMS RACES. The French have taken the open-access community college model of higher education to levels undreamed of by Gramscian deans and cost-conscious legislators.

The campus cafeterias close after lunch. Professors often do not have office hours; many have no office. Some classrooms are so overcrowded that at exam time many students have to find seats elsewhere. By late afternoon every day the campus is largely empty.

Sandwiched between a prison and an unemployment office just outside Paris, the university here is neither the best nor the worst place to study in this fairly wealthy country. Rather, it reflects the crisis of France's archaic state-owned university system: overcrowded, underfinanced, disorganized and resistant to the changes demanded by the outside world.

"In the United States, your university system is one of the drivers of American prosperity," said Claude Allègre, a former education minister who tried without success to reform French universities. "But here, we simply don't invest enough. Universities are poor. They're not a priority either for the state or the private sector. If we don't reverse this trend, we will kill the new generation."

Constrained Vision and Alex at Marginal Revolution have commentary. The article illustrates some corrosive forces at work in U.S. higher education as well. In some ways higher education in France is what higher education might look like in the States if the same forces roam free. First, the signal loses its value.
One result was that the country's university system guaranteed a free — or almost free — college education to every high school graduate who passed the baccalaurĂ©at exam. University enrollment soared. The value of a bachelor's degree plummeted.
The French went one step further, turning college into the new high school, without paying for it.

But the state failed to invest much in buildings, facilities and professors' salaries to make the system work. Today the French government allocates about $8,500 a year to each university student, about 40 percent less than what it invests in each high school student.

Most students are required to attend the universities closest to their high schools. Although certain universities excel in specific fields of study, the course offerings in, say, history or literature are generally the same throughout the country.

I can see administrators at regional public universities near population centers lusting to mimic this.

Second, those who have opportunities to cover their opportunity cost cover them.
Professors lack the standing and the salaries of the private sector. A starting instructor can earn less than $20,000 a year; the most senior professor in France earns about $75,000 a year. Research among the faculty is not a priority.
And that's in France. In the States, engineering and business faculties particularly are susceptible to free-agency offers from private sector firms that exceed the option value of lifetime tenure.

Third, speaking of French fries and double lattes ...
Officials, entrepreneurs, professors and students alike agree that too many students are stuck in majors like sociology or psychology that make it difficult to move into a different career in a stratified society like France, given the country's troubled economy.
I wonder if technical majors such as economics are insufficiently enrollment-impacted over there.

Fourth, regular readers ought not be surprised.
Students who have the money are increasingly turning to foreign universities or private specialized schools in France, especially for graduate school.
No word on whether they're working on place-kicking or practicing jump-shots.

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