Universities: A social duty

President, Sciences Po, Paris

©André Faber

Besides providing training, research, documentation, publishing, and the like, do universities have any particular responsibility towards society? And more to the point, do they have a role to play in the development of education systems? The answer is a resounding “yes”.

Last February, some 20 universities, brought together in a task force created by the UN secretary-general, met in Princeton to examine the way in which universities might respond in a new and innovative way to the intellectual, scientific, political and economic changes taking place in our societies. One issue at the fore of these discussions was the social responsibility of universities.

Obviously, research results and expertise must be made available to society as a whole. At the same time, however, universities can and must take direct action in their own field, namely education. They can do this by allowing others to benefit from their research, for example, into inequalities at school and their influence on urban segregation, and also from their skills in terms of teaching and running educational establishments. They can also mobilise their partners in industry, government and even the media. As social institutions, universities must actively help build social solidarity and no longer be content simply to look after their own development.

It is with this in mind that in 2001 Sciences Po launched a programme of Priority Education Agreements with secondary schools in underprivileged areas. We currently work with 33 schools and have provided places to 189 particularly outstanding students whose access to selective higher education would have otherwise been impossible due to the social biases of the normal selection procedures based on dissertations, and also to a kind of self-censorship practised by the students themselves.

Our sole merit is to have deliberately gone out to find these candidates on the basis of teachers’ reports and in-depth interviews at Sciences Po. What are the results six years down the line?

Obviously the first outcome has been the social diversification of students at Sciences Po, leading to similar initiatives in other higher education establishments. There has also been a knock-on effect in the hiring practices of firms, which have made diversification a cornerstone of their human resources policy. Even the French government administration is considering introducing new selection procedures.

Most of all, this genuine partnership with schools has considerably improved the degree to which secondary school children are prepared to invest in their own education. It has raised the level of their ambitions: they are now setting their sights on training at a far higher level. Our action has had an impact well beyond the walls of Sciences Po.

Drawing on this experience, we are now launching a new initiative based on the same principles, in which the starting point is that of educational establishments and individuals who alone are capable of identifying successes and analysing failures. In many cases the French educational system is incapable of mobilising all pupils in disadvantaged areas. Also, there is growing concern among firms that they may not be able to find enough motivated and educated recruits to replace the baby-boom generation about to retire. True, teachers and headmasters continue to find innovative ways to lend new momentum to teaching establishments and motivate pupils. But the organisational and managerial system in place is unable to properly identify, codify and disseminate good practices.

An association of headmasters, teachers and local activists has drawn up a framework project by simply pooling teaching methods which work well elsewhere but which few people ever think of sharing. These include regular meetings with families, one-on-one tutorial support, multidisciplinary courses, active co-operation with firms, collaboration with colleges and higher educational establishments to instil genuine career guidance procedures, etc. This educational project will be implemented at the start of the 2006 academic year in four secondary schools in Seine-Saint-Denis, a particularly disadvantaged Paris suburb, with the aim of networking with all other establishments which might like to take part in the project. A new secondary school may also be set up.

In all countries, the debate over education is of a political, if not ideological, nature and involves government ministers, parties and trade unions. However, we remain firmly convinced that we can only bring about changes for the better in education by starting at the grass-roots level.

It is fascinating to see how experimenting can alter our approach. Teachers’ unions regularly inveigh against “recruiting” secondary school teachers according to the fitness of the match between their experience and the plans for the establishment. Seniority is the main system used to assign teachers to schools in this complex system, regardless of the quality of their professional skills. But four secondary schools now working on a new teaching project have all reached the same conclusion, namely that teachers must be recruited on the basis of the project.

Many commentators worry about barriers in contemporary society and the difficulties of reform. But we are convinced that our societies know perfectly well how to adapt and innovate on a permanent basis, provided we start with practical real-life situations. The universities stand ready to mobilise their resources and help move this process forward.

©OECD Observer No 255, May 2006

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