French Universities and Strikes
I’d better put my neck ‘on the block’ I suppose…
I don’t like strikes. They strike me as a failure in the system of managing change. But how else can one express a strongly-held view when the other party is not listening, has little or no intention of moderating its stance and is evidently trying force through ill thought-through, half-baked ideas?
In the early 90s, new to university lecturing, I resisted being called out on strike (I wasn’t a union member then anyway), because I had been very strong on making a ‘professional’ contract with my students: I would invest in instant feedback, availability for consultation and support between classes, swift return of work if, for their part, the students would attend, participate, work professionally and meet deadlines. I felt that if I then instantly threw all that up in the air I would never regain my credibility with my students. I felt I was right at the time – and I was, in principle, but I don’t think I had fully appreciated the changes the British government was about to impose on the Higher Education sector and the consequences that would produce in terms of poorer staff-student ratios, less class contact time, massively overworked students trying to invest fully in a degree whilst holding down a significant part-time job to be able to pay the dramatically increased fees and claw back against the inevitable student loan (after the withdrawl of grants). Neither had I foreseen what the pressure for universities to generate their own income would do in marginalising teaching: the ‘gods’ became revenue-earning (consultancy / applied research) and pure research to up the research rating of the University and teaching appeared to be fast becoming a tertiary activity. I should have seen that that was worth manning the barricades for.
Some 20 years on and the fiercely independent and collegiate academics in French Universities find themselves on the cusp of the same agenda. Those who are research-focused don’t seem to mind the prospect, but I doubt they have seen all the picture. The Universities remain state-funded but now, under a law from 2008 have a significantly greater measure of autonomy. Naively the Vice-Chancellors felt that this much expanded role in managing their affairs would come with a much expanded budget, but are faced instead with cuts in budgets to be achieved principally by cuts in staff. The Vice-Chancellors are on the warpath. Staff are too, faced with dramatic (and non-negotiated) changes to programmes which demonstrably work well: after spending careers developing such programmes, staff are loth to see them sabotaged when no indication is being given as to why or how such changes are to be made. “We must have change… therefore we will have change…” appears to be the mantra and the French state seemed draconian enough to want to force it through regardless. But this time it is not the staff demonstrating and striking and the Vice-Chancellors and students annoyed at the lack of ‘normal service’: even the students are appalled at changes which might devalue the learning experience whilst increasing its cost in fees. One example, the government has cancelled a placement year for all those emerging from teacher training through the CAPES national competitive examination programme. Up to now they have completed their studies and then had their first year as a teacher with a relatively light timetable (to enable them to develop course materials, seek advice and reflect upon their performance), mentor support, opportunity to shadow other teachers etc – all absolutely essential in terms of teaching capability development and quality. Oh, this ‘light’ timetable was also on a very ‘light’ salary indeed. Being cancelled, this means that in future a teacher leaves university-based training and is dumped in the deep end to sink or swim: student to teacher in one fell swoop.
The government isn’t listening. The Minister has said things will be reconsidered but throughout the strike seems less than anxious to actually discuss options for achieving the savings and improvements they consider necessary. The problem is that their approach is one of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Most academics I know will admit to their being some ‘slack’ in the system and feel confident that savings can be made: but, of course, no-one is asking them, are they, so they are on the streets (literally) delivering their courses in town squares, village halls and even fast-food restaurants.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an industrial action where bosses, employees, ‘clients’ (students) and the man on the street are so united against government intransigence.
It is not about winning or losing – it is about our kids futures: their employability in the labour market and their preparation for life in the ‘big’ world. That is worth discussing… which everyone but the government seems anxious to do. It will have to discuss in the end.
France has managed to play a significant role in post-war conflict resolution: it was barely ten years after the second German invasion of France in 20 years that de Gaulle had the vision and the guts to invite Adenauer to his own home to discuss the prospect of a means of communication, integration and conflict resolution such that war might never again rear its ugly head in Western Europe and the seeds of the EU were born then and there. What we appear to lack today in terms of the Universities’ Strike is such a quality of vision and follow-through thereon on the part of the government: in the end there will have to be discussion…. but why wait until ‘the bitter end’………………..?
I don’t like strikes…. but sometimes you have to stand up and march to be heard.