John Keiger: The Englishman appointed to help the French government sort out its universities





The French aren't noted for their willingness to defer to the Brits, but for John Keiger, professor of international history and director of the European Studies Research Institute at Salford University, they appear to be making an exception. "I do have a fair amount of experience of French and British university systems," he says, "so I suppose I have been brought in to bring an outsider's perspective to the issues and to stir things up. Employers and students have lost faith in the French university system. In other developed countries, most graduates go on to get decent jobs, but in France comparatively few students find appropriate employment."

Keiger is under no illusions about what he is taking on - not least because the two main problem areas are the sacred cows of French higher education. "France has a strange university system in which the guiding principle is non-selection," he says. "Any person who passes the baccalaureate has an absolute right to study whatever subject - apart from medicine - at whatever university they like. It's only at the end of the first year that any selection is made, and on some courses up to 75% of students are failed. Those who fail are free to start another course as often as they like; many students have two or three false starts before progressing beyond the first year and 25% leave university without ever getting a qualification.

"At the same time, there are the grandes ecoles, which run parallel to universities. These grandes ecoles, such as the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, are funded separately and are highly selective, taking roughly the top 10% of the most academically able students. The entire French political, industrial and - to a large extent - media elite come through the grandes ecoles, so there's both an implicit message not to rock the boat and an explicit statement, however wrong, that university graduates are somehow second-rate."

Keiger is a graduate of the Institut d'Etudes Politiques at Aix-en-Provence - a satellite grande ecole. "I was pointedly reminded I'm a product of the grande ecole when I was appointed," he laughs, "but I don't feel in any way compromised. If push comes to shove and France are playing England, I will always support England. So I pass the Tebbit test."

Keiger was born in London, but grew up in Leicestershire. It was completely accidental that he ended up studying in Aix. "My mother was from the Italian community in Manchester and I grew up speaking French and Italian with my grandfather," he says, "but I landed up in Aix to be near a pen-friend and signed up for the Institut because it was the only way, in the years before Britain joined the Common Market, I could legally stay in France.

"Back in the early 70s the satellite ecoles operated in the same way as universities and I fully expected to get kicked out after the first year. But to my surprise I was one of the 22% who passed and ever since then my career has straddled the French and British systems."

After completing a PhD at Cambridge under the historian Christopher Andrew, Keiger moved to Salford in the late 70s and has stayed there ever since, specialising in the history of the French intelligence services and defence - apart from numerous trips across the Channel to take up visiting professorships.

For Keiger the CNU-E is the latest in a long line of official duties for the French government. But he is in no doubt that it is the most important. "We are due to make our preliminary report on June 16," he says, "and although some people might hope we steer clear of the difficult issues, it's hard to see how we can. Every other western country's higher education system has evolved over the years, but the grandes ecoles and the universities work against each other to create a stalemate.


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