France's Minister of Education, Claude Allégre, warned last week that higher education in Europe was at risk of being dominated by American values as a result of the growing number of U.S. universities setting up branches and degree programs there.
In an interview with Le Monde, a Paris daily, Mr. Allégre said that allowing U.S. universities to set up branches across Europe "would lead to a standardized world, 'one teaching, one thinking.'" He said that Europeans "are preparing a counterattack," which, he suggested, could include a battle over the right to offer distance-learning programs across national borders.
Mr. Allégre who is a close adviser to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, made his comments ahead of the opening of World Trade Organization talks in Seattle this week. The education minister said that European leaders had refused to allow education to be on the agenda for the trade negotiations. If education were to become a subject for World Trade Organization negotiations, distance-learning programs would probably be a primary focus.
Many Europeans go to the United States to study, particularly to pursue graduate degrees in business administration and other fields. Of Americans who study abroad, most are undergraduates and Europe attracts more than 60 per cent. France has long been one of the top five destinations for Americans who study abroad.
But a growing number of U.S. institutions have been setting up programs in Europe and other parts of the world at which their own students can study, and some now offer degree programs overseas. A few institutions even operate several full-fledged campuses abroad and enroll a predominantly foreign study body.
In the Le Monde interview, Mr. Allégre conjured up the specter of an American takeover of higher education. "If Americans install their universities all over the world, all on the same model, with the same curriculum, it would be a catastrophe," he said. Warning against "the privatization of education," he called on Europe to hold to its own "national specifics," among which is free, state-run higher education.
France, however, has increasingly been adapting its own higher-education degrees to fit more closely with the American model. The academic-credit system, unknown in France before the 1970s, has become the standard. Doctoral programs that are more in line with Ph.D. degrees offered by British and U.S. institutions have also been widely introduced in France. Mr. Allégre is now pushing for outside peer review at France's National Center for Scientific Research. Citing the American model, he also is working to change French law so that professors who help develop start-up companies at French universities can reap some of the financial benefits.
France was in the vanguard of a movement to keep intellectual and cultural areas out of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which has become the World Trade Organization. That move was an attempt to protect France's film and television industries. Mr. Allégre's statements in Le Monde are seen in France as another aspect of the defense of French culture.