The question arises in the wake of François Fillon's speech today to the National Assembly. In it he said that university reform would be his government's number one priority. He promised to increase funding of the universities by 5 billion euros over the next five years and to aim to fund research at a level of 3 percent of GDP.
Now, this might seem like a lot of money, but 5 billion euros spread among 84 universities over 5 years is actually a rather modest infusion of cash to each institution, at least if the money is "equally" distributed (and even if "equality" is modified, as one hears it might be, to take account of existing variations among the several universities). If it isn't equally distributed according to some fixed principle, protests can be expected, because of the commitment of both the government and interested parties to an often-invoked but seldom defined "principle of republican equality." The notion of equality as a norm of political action rather than a property of the relation between man and man is a rather peculiar one. It is a serious constraint on reform. It implies, first of all, that the government cannot act incrementally.* It cannot experiment on a small scale, in a pilot program, with a reform that might seem promising yet hold in store unforeseen and unforeseeable complications. It must act across the nation, across the university system as a whole, taking a big gamble rather than experimenting with a hundred modest ones. Such a high-stakes and highly visible game is well suited to a presidency predicated on bold action and on the communication of that action to the public. Continued support depends on constant awareness that big changes are afoot. But big changes may not be the best way to renew a thing as complicated as the French universities (or the French economy). As Sarkozy himself said the other day, you can't just reform the university, because the university impinges on so many other social systems: the labor market, the primary and secondary schools, housing, construction, budget, European and international standards, etc.
Equality shouldn't become a mantra intoned to allay the fear of unreasonable risk.
* Curiously, in another passage of his speech, Fillon announced a "democratization of access to the artistic patrimony of the nation," an orotund phrase for free admission to museums, but this is to be introduced incrementally, with an experiment in a small "sample" of Parisian and provincial museums, to test the effects. Why incrementalism here, in a relatively less sensitive matter, and "republican equality" vis-à-vis the universities, which must all become autonomous in one fell swoop?