|Sorbonne university in Paris (Wikipedia)|
Louisiane Ferlier lectures in early modern intellectual history at Jesus College, University of Oxford.
In their 2004 publication, Universality or Specialisation?, Christian Allies and Michel Troquet summed up the dilemma faced by the French higher education system.
For France, the existence of an "international education market dominated by the English speaking world" has made adapting to competition particularly difficult.
Although Allies and Troquet adequately highlighted the complicated consequences of this choix cornélien, or predicament, almost 10 years later no clear strategy has been adopted.
Neither the French ministry of higher education, its academic institutions, nor the academic community itself (that elusive mystical unicorn of a beast) have opted for universality or officially endorsed the specialisation that is evidently taking place.
Perhaps like no other, the French higher education system is fragmented. It is composed of a constellation of administratively independent institutions and offers a large range of curriculum from the highly selective classes préparatoires to the most universal of bachelor degrees.
Rather than trying to redress the growing inequalities resulting from this fragmentation, French higher education has followed the specialisation route following the 1999 Bologna process.
The slant towards research and the curtailing of the general educational vocation of French universities, noted by Allies and Troquet, was at its peak under Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency.
Taking into account these considerations, I'd like to reflect on what is left of universality in French universities and what British higher education can learn from it.
Universality is the hydra-like founding myth of European universities - try cutting one of its many heads and two will grow in its place.
The idea of a universal right to higher education is still alive and well in France. The low fees of the non-selective French universities are proud markers of its egalitarian system - as universities are seen as contributing to the common good, they are financed by the community.
Yet, with around 25% of students enrolling who do not obtain their diploma and a high percentage of reorientations (transfers), they fail a considerable proportion of students in this idealistic mission.
The British pragmatic imperative to lay the debt on the individual might be a more powerful incentive for students to succeed.
Universities are also seen as universal places of knowledge. French universities offer students as many courses, combined subjects, and joint curricula as possible.
As opposed to the narrow subject specialisation imposed to undergraduates in Britain, it is possible for a French student to follow up to a third of his or her term's worth of courses in another department.
Topping the lack of flexibility in British curriculum (poorly justified in employability terms), the growing closures of departments in British universities damages further their claim to universality.
Université Universelle is the name of a lobby group that has campaigned since 2011 to help foreign students study in France.
This group brings together academics, writers and students alike and insists that French universities will lose their dynamism, creativity and attraction if they fail to recruit among foreign students. However, it seems to ignore other reasons for the lack of allure of French higher education.
Once upon an enlightened time, French was an academic lingua franca. Remnants of this golden age are: the poor level of English among several generations of French academics, a highly developed pride for our language (well-founded, naturally) and a large number of invaluable academic journals that now fail to find a readership outside of the Francophonie.
Today's lack of reach for the French language and the still poor command of English in French academia, should be counted as factors in the failure of French higher education to attract universally, along with excessive red tape and incomprehensible fragmentation.
What lesson can French universities learn from all this? That universality should not only be defined as a programme but also developed on the existing strength of our system. The lesson for British universities comes from the Université Universelle group itself.
The past months have seen sporadic strikes in British higher education. What these revealed to me was that it is cankered by a lack of cohesion, a lack of idealism and a certain inability to organise itself or voice its concerns in an audible way to the general public.
French education might not always deliver in statistical terms but it still offers powerful lessons in social and political cohesion. Perhaps Britain should appreciate this messy French way and try to find its own mystical unicorn: a cohesive intellectual community.