Q & A with Dr. Bernard Belloc: Rethinking French Higher Education

While on a recent visit at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW–Madison) , Dr. Bernard Belloc, adviser on education to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, sat down to answer a few questions on the changing context of higher education in France with Dean Gilles Bousquet of the Division of International Studies.  During the Q&A, Belloc offered his perspective on French higher education, talked about the strengths of the American system, and revealed what struck him most about Wisconsin’s universities.

Below are some of the excerpts from this Q&A:

Gilles Bousquet(GB): Dr. Belloc, what brings you to the Midwest and to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in particular?

Dr. Bernard Belloc
Dr. Bernard Belloc

Bernard Belloc (BB): France is currently undergoing a set of reforms that will completely change the way its higher education system operates. I am delighted to have been one of the first people to come to the Midwest and to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to explain these reforms and the new French policy on education as part of the inaugural conference for the Global Studies in Higher Education. These types of conferences that place research and education within a global context are essential for a global exchange of ideas.

GB: Why is this exchange of ideas within a global context so important today?

BB: Because today, the great questions of medicine and science are global questions that demand analysis of problems and solutions on a global scale. France needs to participate more in research for global problems and solutions. I feel that it is my responsibility to participate in this type of exchange with researchers and students from different parts of the world […]—only when we step out of our country and into another country and culture can we gain perspective and engage in what I might describe as a ‘comparative forum for the global exchange of ideas’ that help us improve our own system.

GB: How are these new perspectives on higher education from other countries useful to your work as an adviser to the French President?

BB: This trip and others have given me the opportunity both to be generous with my opinions and advice and to receive valuable ideas and advice from other people. It’s important for me to gather ideas from places like UW–Madison or my recent trip to China—I want to be able to bring new ideas and perspectives back to my country and exchange them with the president. I can then help in my own way, with what I know and what I have seen elsewhere. I’m intellectually curious, and this is what drives me to look elsewhere and always try to bring the best back to France, to improve our own schools and increase our role in research. […]

GB: How is France’s perspective on higher education changing?

BB: It’s not surprising that our president nominated people to his cabinet who were not the traditional elites formed in the ‘grandes ecoles.’ […]There is a desire by the new administration to open up to strategies that work elsewhere in the world. In terms of education, we cannot ignore change if we want to stay productive and competitive in the future. The current system in France is relatively inefficient and very costly in some aspects.

For example, in France the share of the gross national product (GNP) devoted to research and development activities and the number of working researchers is greater than in United Kingdom. Despite this, British scientific research publications are much more abundant than French ones. Another example of the inefficiency of the French system is that public funding for higher education in France is among the highest in the world. Yet, we have one of the highest rates of unemployment for young people in the developed world. We cannot continue to operate with this system if we hope to continue to be competitive with the Chinese and the Americans in terms of education and research.

GB: Is France the victim of a “brain drain”?

BB: Not exactly. But every year millions of Euros are indirectly transferred from the French to the American system through researchers who leave France to study and teach here instead because there is not enough incentive for them to stay in France. In essence, French taxes are being paid to enrich American universities—it’s a ‘flight of means.’ […] This system cannot continue to operate as is.

GB: Why look to the United States as an example?

Dean Gilles Bousquet
Dean Gilles Bousquet

BB: France falls fifteen points below the US in enrollment of students 18-25 even though the system is free. This is telltale evidence of the inefficiency of the French higher education system. Where are these young people? Why do they drop out? We have to recognize that the American system of higher education is very operational, while the French system is costly and ineffective.

GB: What makes the American system more operational than the French one?

BB: What’s particular about the American university system, what draws me in particular, and what makes it operational, is that it provides students with knowledge that is not only useful to their own evolution but also functional and useful for the collective. American universities are a symbol of what should become a global standard: higher education to the benefit of society. Fundamentally what makes American universities so strong is the fact that they engage in academic activities that serve to help the country develop. This is the true strength of American universities, not their financial wealth. The French education system needs reform so that it can become a system that is collectively efficient rather than simply individually efficient as it is now.

GB: What about higher education in the state of Wisconsin?

BB: What I appreciated most about the higher education system in Wisconsin is the extended differentiation that occurs between state universities, community colleges, and technical colleges. This is an interesting aspect of the UW System which allows universities to operate and evolve independently while still part of a public system. Most of the funding comes from state and federal sources and yet the universities are very autonomous.

GB: Why is differentiation important?

BB: This allows for a diversification of campuses around the state and allows for students to move between the different types of schools and disciplines. This diversification provides unique learning environments with particular strengths and produces excellent results in academic achievement and research that are useful to society. This is definitely an idea I will take back with me because in France higher education is organized very differently with little differentiation or room for overlap and transition: either you go to a technical school or an academically-focused institution. There are few bridges between the two.  Community colleges are one of the elements of this diversification that I found particularly interesting and adapted to some of the problems we have in France.

GB: Why were community colleges of particular interest to you during your trip?

BB: We don’t have this type of system in France. In France many students don’t know what they want to do professionally when they enter the university, and many more are at a loss to find a job when they exit it. The lack of diversity in types of majors offered, high drop-out rates, and lack of jobs has created a real problem in our country. […]

Community colleges would be particularly suited to solving this problem. They would provide an alternative environment for students not yet ready for the pace of a large university. They could also provide the student with a diverse curriculum which could then have real outcomes when he/she enters the job market or chooses to continue with his/her studies. These community colleges could function as a buffer between high school and college and expose students to a diversity of subject areas.

GB: What aspects of this trip will you bring back to France?

Theoretically my trip here will enable me to bring some of the ideas and techniques I’ve observed here back to France, and to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. But concretely, I cannot know yet how this will evolve or become implemented in educational policy—as an adviser to the president my role is to make analysis and give suggestions that serve to inform the president. He then draws from my recommendations when designing new propositions, sometimes implementing them completely and sometimes adding his own ideas.

Reported on and translated from French by Nina Gehan.