Historical materialism congres, London, november 2022. Communication of Hugo Harari-Kermadec
The French higher education system, as many other in Europe, have been facing major transformations during the last decades. Across the XXth century, its main purpose was to provide higher education in all parts of France, in a context of massification of the student population. The rhetoric of excellence (Musselin, 2017) in training and research has gradually prevailed, embodied in the race for international university rankings (Harari-Kermadec, 2019).
These rankings are mobilized by the public authorities to present as external, global, a trend of competition and commercialization. The number of students in international migration is growing exponentially, and French institutions must do better on this export market. French institutions were not ranked as high as they should, and universities were stuck in a crisis of bachelor completion rate (Bodin & Orange, 2013). These arguments have been used as justification for the development of competitive grants for research and for university mergers, the so called “excellence” policies from 2010 onwards. They were also put forward by the first Macron government to multiply by 16 the registration fees – for foreign students only – with the “Welcome to France” plan in 2019.
Nevertheless, French universities remain public institution funded on block grants and the vast majority of students pay no or low tuition fees (a few hundred euros). What dynamics result from this contradiction? We defend that it results in a differentiation dynamic (Rikap & Harari-Kermadec, 2020), with elements of polarization of student populations (between institutions but also within each university) and various stages of commodification of academic labor.
We use student enrollment data on the last decade to study the reorganization of the French higher education, historically divided between free, public and open access universities and elite Grandes Ecoles, pioneer in the rise of tuition fees. The “excellence” policies distinguish a few institutions, results of mergers of universities and Grandes Ecoles, much better funded and designed to climb the international rankings. They keep the name “university” but are legally defined by a experimental status (reducing the traditional academic collegiality) and would be better described as very Grandes Ecoles. Their student population present indeed elitist social properties (social origin, parents income, high school achievements). This trend is even more pronounced if we focus on the graduate programs (Blanchard et al., 2020). On the other hand, the majority of universities, situated in medium-sized cities or suburbs (Chareyron et al, 2022), assume most of the public service of providing higher education for an increasing number of students from lower classes, with reduced funding.
Commodification is then a differentiated process. On the top of the system, world elite research is directly connected with global corporations, and expensive graduate programs are offered on the global market. On the bottom, for profit institutions offer expensive higher education to medium and lower classes students, taking advantage of the poor learning conditions in the lower tier of public universities. Finally, some very elitist institutions, as Sciences Po and Ecole Polytechnique, have been able to preserve their privileged position as traditional Grandes Ecoles to be exempted from the mergers while rising sharply tuitions fees and foreign student enrollment.