In Paris, numbers – and spirits – of student strikers are waning

The protests that blocked classes at dozens of colleges ended up underscoring the need for reform in a university system that the government says is outmoded and underperforming.

After four months of marching in circles, 24/7 protest readings of 19th-century French novels, text messages, and long meetings, the French student strikes of 2009 are slowly becoming more whimper than bang. While a hard-core set of students vows to carry on opposition to a major government reform of higher learning, their numbers and spirit are waning.

Ironically, perhaps, the chaotic protests that blocked classes at more than 50 of 85 French universities, "became their own advertisement for the need for reform," says international relations professor Frederic Bozo of the Sorbonne, a moderate.

As 29 leading French scientists and intellectuals noted in a statement a week ago that found flaws with both students and government: "It is now obvious that the French university is not only in crisis ... it is nearing a state of agony."

Off Avenue Saint Germain, at the grand courtyard inside the Sorbonne, students clustering beneath a statue of Victor Hugo are despondent and angry that their effort to oppose got no traction.

Unlike the famed May 1968 student protests, when police stormed the Sorbonne, public support for these strikes is low.

"We've met twice a week since February, I've been here every day," says Pauline, an education major at the school. "Everything about the [reform] law is wrong."

Students at a nearby medical college said their peers were trying to relive the 1968 protest, urged on by professors.

But not all students claimed to be leftists and not all opposed President Nicolas Sarkozy – though all did say the president's January speech about an "infantilizing system" of "weak universities" inflamed the situation.

Mr. Sarkozy is the first French president to try to reform colleges away from an elite system that offers top-grade schools for 4 percent of French students while leaving the rest to fend for themselves in a sprawling university system whose degrees are less respected.

At its core, the strike pits a broad if not always deep sense among students that they are upholding a concept of pure education and public service – which needs more funding and should not mimic a more-commercial American model – against a tough government view that colleges are outmoded, inefficient, inflexible, and underperforming in an era of globalization.

Two different reforms tied to funding are creating "autonomous" authority at universities, allowing private-sector funded research, changing teaching and research loads for professors, and reframing funding between the elite schools and the broader university system.

In a nation as conscious of bureaucracy and detail as France, university reform is an endlessly dense political hot potato: the left wants state oversight improved; the right wants to allow private-sector involvement.

Students worry the reforms will introduce student fees, and professors worry about new measures that will trade pure research that takes time for short commercial research projects that make a profit.

Aniko Sebesteny, a student leader and anthropology PhD candidate who led a march from Nanterre University in Nanterre to Paris, says some reforms might be needed.

But the reform laws are too radical, she says. "It's like getting married," she comments. "You don't want to take just any available husband."

Much of the reform impulse is based on Sarkozy's framing of a France losing its global position. The debate runs white hot each year when the Shanghai Jiao Tong University ratings on world colleges come out.

For a decade, no French school has made it into the top 50, causing great displays of irritation and hand-wringing – and warnings on innovation, job creation, and competitiveness. (Much of the kind of research that gives high marks to schools in other nations takes place outside French colleges.)

But reforms are also about parity and the two-tier French system. Elite schools with harsh entrance exams take elite students and are generously funded. Some elite schools have 150 students – while the Sorbonne university system has 77,000.

The quality of education offered to new populations of suburban students is not the same, and there's little middle ground between elite schools and the mammoth one-size- fits-all university system.

"Reform in the long run is in the interest of students and families in France," argues Bernard Bobe, a chemist at the École Nationale Supérieure who has closely followed higher education in France.

In mid-May, as the current semester looked lost to tens of thousands of students, the statement by the 29 leading university scientists and intellectuals offered a kind of radical compromise, calling for more money but better accountability, regulations that will end cronyism, and putting the university system at the heart of graduate study.

Mr. Bobe, who agrees that reforms are needed, disagrees with new laws that he says give too much power to newly autonomous college presidents in the area of academic judgment, saying that the presidents should stick more closely to administrative matters. (In US colleges, such judgments would be department or faculty senate matters).

He also says that laws that require professors to do more teaching, no matter how involved or brilliant their research is, create a morale problem and a disincentive among faculty.

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