AFTER SEVERAL YEARS of relative quiescence, French students are once again mobilized in opposition to the French government over the future of their universities. Last week, more than 100,000 students all over France participated in demonstrations against the Giscard d' Estaing government's proposed reform of higher education. These demonstrations--the outgrowth of a campaign against the reform that has intensified steadily since its promulgation last February--began a nationwide university general strike and a week of conference and teach-ins.
The Giscard government planned the reform to make the educational system more responsible to the needs of the economy. The reform will sharply expand technical training in the universities at the expense of programs in the humanities and social sciences, and will introduce rigorous selection procedures to reduce the number of advanced degree candidates. By further centralizing the educational system and by limiting the autonomy of individual universities, the government also hopes to expand its control over university affairs, in order to prevent recurrences of radical activities, like May 1968--and like the current movement. Since the reform is designed to "professionalize" French education by training students only in those fields where jobs are available, leaders of industry will be asked to help plan university curricula in accordance with their needs. Making this reform even more dangerous, the government plan includes no specific means for realizing its program, leaving broad discretionary powers in the hands of the ministry of education, rather than under parliamentary control.
While the fact that this reform threatens to transform French universities into nothing more than training centers for future clerical and technical workers is disturbing enough, it also has sinister ideological and political overtones. By branding the universities "producers of unemployment," the Giscard government is attempting to transfer the responsibility for unemployment onto the unemployed themselves. As a result of the current recession, France is suffering its highest unemployment rates since World War II. To divert public attention from the roots of this unemployment in France's social and economic system, the Giscard government has blamed the educational training of French students for their unemployment. The educational reform should thus be seen as a maneuver by the Giscard government to defend its economic policies against criticism from the left in preparation for the approaching 1978 parliamentary elections.
THE BREADTH OF SUPPORT for the student movement has made the government's position less and less tenable. Most universities are out on strike, led by the leftist student federations; the students are backed by the opposition parties and the trade unions; associations of professors, vice-chancellors, and even university presidents have joined in condemning the reform. While the crisis does not really resemble May 1968--there has been little rioting, and few organized attempts to expand the movement's scope beyond immediate demands--continued governmental intransigence may escalate the conflict. Although Alice Saunier-Seite, secretary of education and the author of the reform, has offered minimal concessions while refusing to consider its repeal, it appears likely that the government will eventually be forced to abandon the reform or risk a rapid collapse of both its electoral position and its ability to govern.
Whether or not the French students succeed in abrogating the proposed reform, they have provided important inspiration to American students faced with analogous situations. The American educational system is neither as centralized nor as public as is the French system, so that educational issues are less clearly political ones. But American universities confront the same kind of problems on job-directed programs, to cut costs and staff, and to turn to corporate organizational practices. This is true whether the university is public or private, although public universities like the City University of New York are more likely to cut back specifically on non-vocational programs, whereas private universities like Boston University are more likely to emphasize staff cutbacks. American students have just begun to resist these attacks on the quality of their education, as in the strike at Brown last year. But as this professionalization of the educational system progresses nationally, the need for a dynamic oppositional movement will become greater, and the example of the French students will loom larger.