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Latour in the French debate on university reform

2 March, 2009

I am not sure how many Culture Matters readers have followed the French debate that has surrounded the government’s announcement that university funding will be reformed in accordance with the audit model that French commentators mistakenly identify as “American,” but which all of us elsewhere in Western Europe, Australia and so on have meekly accepted. (I recall how surprised I was by the atmosphere in a faculty meeting at Macquarie, in which there was no attempt to discuss whether or not we should go with the new “research assessment” system; rahter, the debate was restricted to “harm reduction.”) French university staff, by contrast, has gone on strike in protest.

In Le Monde, Bruno Latour has published an article rejecting the reform principally in the name of defending university autonomy. The article unleashed another round of the debate, in which Claude Calame of the EHESS took issue with Latour. Calame points out that the current system is hopelessly in need of reform and that, in any case, universities’ liberties are now limited to the liberties of/in the market:

the Sarkozy administration is so reactionary, in the neoconservatie sense of the word, that it has succeeded in making a situation that no one wishes either to defend or to maintain appear progressive. To denigrate the state, and the dependence it will impose upon teachers and researchers, is to forget that it is also the state of law and the guarantor of fundamental liberties. It is this ensemble of institutions and services that not only maintains a certain equality of treatment … but also allows citizens to exercise political control over the institutions they finance, so that they are not short-circuited by an oligarchy of plutocrats or that its tasks are not farmed out to the private sector.

Not being familiar with the debate in is entirety, it appears that Calame sees the state-imposed audit system as a guarantee of taxpayers’ control over publicly financed institutions, which is exactly the freemarketist justification that audit systems use everywhere, in both state-financed and non-state-financed systems (and of course the argument of those in favour of e.g. bank nationalisation). Yet Calame attacks freemarketeers and “plutocrats” (a word that, I must say, sets off alarm bells for me, all the more that in Eastern Europe it has often been used in the combination “Judeo-plutocrats”).

In any case I would like to see more serious discussion of the combined effects of bureaucratization, democratization, and most recently recession and a turn back to state ownership, on knowledge production. I wonder in particular what effect the recession is having on the largely privately financed U.S. research and education system.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Galen S permalink
    17 March, 2009 4:30 am

    What a surprise, the French professors are striking again! Every time I go to France teachers are protesting something, it’s rather refreshing, if obnoxious to students.

  2. ponocrates permalink
    17 March, 2009 4:37 am

    Hi. I think i might help a bit here.

    “it appears that Calame sees the state-imposed audit system as a guarantee of taxpayers’ control over publicly financed institutions, which is exactly the freemarketist justification that audit systems use everywhere, in both state-financed and non-state-financed systems(…)”

    In the sentences you are referring to, the author makes the point that citizens (not “tax-payers”) have a legitimacy to control public institutions, and can do so through the democratic state, whereas citizens cannot, as such, control market-driven and privatized institutions.

    And the context is not (yet ?) that “universities’ liberties are now limited to the liberties of/in the market”, but rather that many professors and students opposes some “reforms” induced by the government (and the so-called “Bologna Process”) that tends precisely to realize that state of affairs.

    As for more serious discussions, i can not help anymore.

  3. ponocrates permalink
    17 March, 2009 4:59 am

    One last thing, the position of Bruno Latour is not really to reject the governement’s reforms. He is much more ambiguous on that issue. For example, the strongest criticism of the reform Latour formulated in his article in Le Monde was that it is “lacking audacity”.

    Latour’s article is here :

  4. Maryam Dominique Ghassemi permalink
    11 April, 2009 12:03 pm

    Having been away from France for a few months, reading Mr. Latour’s article is like a breath of fresh air. Universities and research is more and more linked to the necessities of the market. So what is going to happen to such studies as sociology, anthropology, human sciences and even art? They have started to be neglected since the end of the 1980ies except when they serve productivity. Psychology is also included in this package. And what about understanding and tolerance then? Racial prejudice comes from fear and lack of understanding of others. It was increasing dramatically when I left, last August. I am going back in June and fear what is awaiting me. Labels tattoed on people’s bodies telling how useful they are to the economy? Are we forgetting certain historical facts that happened not so long ago?

  5. Maryam Dominique Ghassemi permalink
    11 April, 2009 12:05 pm

    May I know what you mean by moderation?

  6. Maryam Dominique Ghassemi permalink
    11 April, 2009 12:40 pm

    Well, I don’t think moderation is possible.The world is ablaze because of economical reasons, of course, which are not clearly explained to the public but also because of lack of understanding of other’s ethnical traditions. The scarf in France is a symbol of what I said. Personnally I loathe it but why do young French girls insist on wearing it? I don’t think it is for deep religious reasons.I believe it is because they have been rejected by middle class French society so they react. They are French, they have the same rights than other French girls but they are rejected because of a slight accent when they speak, because of a name. Lots of French know the ‘beurs’ and respect them. But those French belong to the old generation. Now things are becoming worse.

  7. 11 May, 2009 6:14 am

    hi maryam j’ai perdu ton numero et adresse peux tu me les envoyer car je dois te parler comment va farid et tapa ecris moi bises ginette

  8. ginette ruetschi permalink
    11 May, 2009 6:19 am

    interesting.women have become free only for 50 years so suddenly a scarf and a veil and a burka are reminders of a too fresh second rank position in the society. it hurts and scares.


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