Geographer Jean-Robert Pitte, 56, president since 2003 of the University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), rose to notoriety this spring with his criticism of the uprising against the government's abortive law to make it easier to fire and therefore hire young people. Pitte's new book, Young People, They're Lying to You: Reconstructing the University, is a stinging critique of French education. He spoke with Time's James Graff in Pitte's office.
How many of the 26,000 students at the Sorbonne are really students? Between 10 and 15% of them are false students who enroll to get social security and a student ID card. But the 23,000 or 24,000 others are still twice too many: many of them aren't really made for this kind of study. They rapidly fail within a year, maybe two. That's the real catastrophe: we end up selecting students through failure, but we don't dare to select them before they enter that's considered to be antidemocratic.
Was it any different when you were a student here in 1968? In 1968 I was 19 years old, and I detested those bourgeois, golden youths breaking their toys, but I just got
on with it. In 1970, I did a masters paper on the wines of the Jura, and I was very young when I finished my Ph.D. the next year, and I thought, If I can do that, maybe I can become an assistant professor.
Aren't there kids like that now at the Sorbonne? Sure, but it's tougher for them. There aren't enough teachers; there's very little tutoring, the profs don't have offices. Many students are passive and get ignored.
So money's a problem? At the Sorbonne, which is a literary university and gets less funding than scientific ones do, our annual costs come to about €3,300 per student that's less than France pays on average for a nursery-school pupil. At Princeton it's €110,000 per year.
But there are structural issues, too. We have to raise the academic level at the universities, lower the number of students in nonscientific courses, and increase the number in shorter and more technical programs.
The French seem to think a career choice is a once-in-a-lifetime decision. They do, and it's stupid. I've done a lot of my research and writing in the field of cuisine and wine and I see lots of people there who haven't gone to university. Look at the most famous chefs: [Alain] Ducasse, [Joël] Robuchon, [Guy] Savoy; they started in the kitchens at 13 and now they're the heads of companies. Ducasse earns millions per year, and Robuchon opened two new restaurants in Las Vegas last year. Yet polls show that at least 60% of students aspire to be state employees.
What can be done? In France we don't have enough students in higher education; only half as many proportionally as the U.S. In France, each student costs an average of €7,400 for a total budget of €17 billion. So let's suppose that we double the budget and bring it up to €15,000 per student. If at the same time we doubled the number of students, we'll end up with a budget of €70 billion. How are you going to find that kind of money when the government has a budget deficit of €47 billion? That's the dilemma.
Surely it is not politically feasible to talk about university fees. We're hearing more and more people talking about it, on the right and the left.
Can universities really become a motor of change for France? They can, but I think we ought to be demanding more in primary and secondary education, too. The French are ready to demand more of ourselves in general. There's a real problem at the foundation of our society. To catch up we need a President and Ministers and intellectuals who want to listen.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has complained about the déclinologues who revel in chronicling France's fall. Are you one? I'm very critical of the state of French universities. But in the end, I suggest that with major surgery we can improve things. So I don't consider myself a déclinologue, but rather someone unhappy about seeing my country in this state.