April 23, 2012

The French Presidential Elections 2012: On the extremes. Part 2

The left-wing protest vote looked likely, before last night, to go to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, candidate for the assembled Communist coalition that makes up the Front de Gauche. Mélenchon’s fiery rhetoric attracted considerable media attention prior to the first-round poll, but his promise to seize earnings over 300,000 Euros failed to convince enough voters to enable the one-time Parti Socialiste member to finish higher than Le Pen. With 11.11% according to Le Figaro, Mélenchon came a respectable fourth, but the far left vote was, as ever in presidential and legislative elections in France, divided amongst several candidates. The overall score for the extreme left, including Philippe Poutou for the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA–1.15%) and Nathalie Arnaud for Lutte Ouvrière (0.56%), amounted to 13.5%, still some four percentage points lower than Marine Le Pen. Mélenchon did, nevertheless, obtain far more votes than the Communist candidate in the 2007 elections, Marie-Georges Buffet, who failed to qualify for the 5% mark which guarantees reimbursement ofcampaign materials with just 1.2% of the vote.

Where Le Pen’s manifesto is aimed squarely at tackling the immediate issues in the lives of working-class voters, including immigration, law and order and youth unemployment, Mélenchon’s programme dealt in particular with the French economy and improving the economic lot of the ordinary French voter. Le Pen, in fact, promised to ensure that unnecessary spending will be cut while Mélenchon aimed to increase public spending to stimulate growth. Although Le Pen appears to have targeted her programme at blue-collar voters in regions of high immigration–like Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur–it is worth noting that her support is consistently between 13 and 17 per cent across the French nation; a considerable feat for the French extreme right.

Mélenchon failed to obtain this level of support. Yesterday did, therefore, mark a disappointing day for the Front de Gauche, who may struggle to repeat the Mélenchon phenomenon at the next presidential election in 2017. Like Poutou and Arnaud, Mélenchon has ultimately failed to capitalise on the window of opportunity presented by the Eurozone crisis and the economic recession. While Le Pen’s policies are by no means all realistic (including her target of a cap on immigration of 10,000 entries per year), Poutou’s aim of simply refusing to pay off France’s budget deficit was pure fantasy.

Where the extreme left has failed in this election is to propose realistic measures aimed at the concerns of ordinary people. Instead, the 13 per cent total for the combined extreme left represents a form of rejection on the part of the French people for an alternative to capitalism and confirms the poor standing of the far left in areas where it once thrived, notably Marine Le Pen’s stronghold of the Nord-pas-de Calais. Of the extremes, then, it is the FN and Marine Le Pen who emerge in the role of the kingmakers. Mélenchon’s backing for Hollande will be nullified if Sarkozy succeeds in persuading a majority of Le Pen voters to back him in the second round. It will now be for Mélenchon and the Front de Gauche to adapt their approach ahead of the legislative elections in June, where the battle with the FN will be fiercer still.

March 23, 2012

Why do we need Widening Participation? (Part 1)

Alumni donations cannot replace widening participation initiatives

In an article in The Sunday Times last week, the Conservative MP for East Surrey, Sam Gyimah, called for an increase in alumni donations to fund students who will attend university in the 2012-13 academic years and beyond. Mr Gyimah's central argument was that current outreach programmes on the part of universities are 'fragmented, overlapping and costly' and have 'failed to address [the issues faced by students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds.]' His solution is simple: encourage alumni to contribute to an 'endowment fund' after they have finished paying off their student loan. At present, just 1% of alumni donate to their old institution, and Mr Gyimah argues that through contributing to this voluntary endowment fund, the best-paid graduates would provide financial support for generations to come.

Financial support is undoubtedly important for any prospective university student, regardless of their socio-economic background. In the new era of £9,000 tuition fees, it is conceivable that students from the lowest socio-economic groups and low participation neighbourhoods might be put off, as Mr Gyimah rightly points out, by the high cost of study.

Yet Mr Gyimah’s argument is flawed in two places. The first is the financial aspect to his argument–the need for alumni to ‘get [their] wallets out’ to pay for the next generations of students. Even if alumni were to substantially increase their donations ahead of September 2012–and a sea change in alumni attitude towards giving to their alma mater is unlikely to come about in such a short space of time–Mr Gyimah also neglects the financial packages already on the table ahead of the new intake’s arrival.

Let us take Warwick as an example. The University has recently agreed with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), the QUANGO charged with ensuring that universities admit students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, a substantial package for prospective students. According to the University's 'Fair Access Agreement' students from a household with an annual income of less than £25,001 will receive a fee waiver (under the banner of the 'Warwick National Scholarships') of £2,000 per year AND be eligible for a Warwick Bursary of some £2,500 per year. The Warwick Bursaries will be given as grants and will not, therefore, be paid back by students. Students from households with annual incomes of any amount less than £42,601 will receive a bursary of some form. To give an idea of how far this contribution will go, annual accommodation costs for the most expensive student hall, the new Bluebell residence, amount to £5,655. So the maximum Warwick Bursary would be just short of half of the Bluebell fees. Rent in Rootes Hall, by contrast, is just £3,354, the bulk of which would be paid by a Warwick Bursary.

Warwick plans, according to its Fair Access Agreement, to spend some £500,000 of its own funds on fee waivers, and hopes that around 15% of Home/EU students take up the offer. In the 2009/10 academic year, 1,880 state school students came to the University, with 400 students from the lowest socio-economic groups and 140 from the lowest participation backgrounds. The University aims, however, to increase these figures gradually in future years. In any case, the commitment shown through its bursaries and fee waivers indicates a genuine desire to increase the diversity of the student body.

The second issue with Mr Gyimah’s argument is his assertion that outreach programmes have effectively failed to recruit students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and that they are, in short, ‘fragmentary.’ Without widening participation initiatives, how does Mr Gyimah expect universities to recruit students from lower socio-economic backgrounds? Warwick’s outreach programmes currently engage with 32 schools across the Coventry and Warwickshire area, with plans to increase this number to 40 by the 2016-17 academic year.

Why do we need Widening Participation? Part 2

The widening participation schemes run by Warwick are diverse, ranging from ‘University Taster Days’ in which Year 9 students visit the University and experience a day in the life of a student, to summer schools for Year 10 students. Another outreach initiative is the ‘Student Progression Team’, in which university students mentor local secondary school students. It is an indication of how seriously Warwick takes widening participation that this programme, like the ‘University Taster Days’ was previously funded by Aimhigher, one of Labour’s pet projects under Tony Blair’s scheme to encourage 50 per cent of all young adults to attend university. The fact that Warwick has several outreach projects–other initiatives include the ‘Access for All’, ‘Goal’ and ‘Pathways to Law’ programmes–does not necessarily make these projects ‘fragmentary.’ Rather, Warwick is a good example of how to reach a large number of school students through different means. Where the ‘Access for All’ project aims to raise the aspirations of students who might not have considered university, including young carers and looked-after students, the Goal programme targets Gifted and Talented students. The Pathways to Law project is aimed in particular at students who are looking to pursue a law career, while the focus of the Student Progression Team is on university student-led mentoring.

The projects do not, therefore, run the risk of overlapping; instead they reach out to as wide an audience as possible. Warwick’s widening participation initiatives are not inefficient and fragmentary; rather, such has been their success that the University will be part of the new ‘Dux’ Award scheme, in which the best Year 9 students from state schools across the country will be nominated to attend a day at a Russell Group university, including Warwick. The University has also just announced ‘The Big Deal 2012’, an Apprentice-style competition which will see Year 10 students on the ‘Goal’ compete in a business challenge. Not only do these programmes illustrate how seriously Warwick takes Widening Participation, but they are also brilliant opportunities for the students involved. Coming from a state school background myself, I would have been thrilled with the opportunity to spend some time as a Year 9 student at one of the country’s top universities. These projects offer genuine encouragement to school students who might not have previously thought at all about university; they praise academic achievement regardless of socio-economic background.

There are also numerous departmental-led initiatives across the University which focus on engaging students in a particular subject at university level, rather than in university study as a whole. The Physics department, for example, engages with nearly every school in the Coventry and Warwickshire region and has a dedicated Widening Participation fellow. In the French department, we have recently opened up links to new schools in Warwickshire and further afield, with the aim of encouraging students from all backgrounds to consider studying languages at university.

I have taken part in several Widening Participation schemes during my postgraduate career. One of my most recent experiences was illustrative of the range of programmes in which Warwick engages. As part of the Teach First Higher Education Access Programme for Schools (HEAPS), I delivered a seminar on Vichy audiovisual propaganda to a group of Year 12 students from London. These students had never come into contact with Warwick’s other outreach programmes, which are targeted quite rightly at local schools. Once again, this demonstrates how an institution can tailor its outreach programmes to avoid the ‘fragmentary’ label applied by Mr Gyimah.

Why do we need widening participation? Part 3

The experience itself was, quite simply, inspirational. Not only were these students engaged and alert, but they have also had a genuine influence on my research. One student pointed out that the positioning of a tricolore flag in one of the newsreel clips that I had shown was, in fact, deliberately behind Marshal Pétain. As the student suggested, this physically positioned the new regime ahead of the old Republic in the programme of ‘National Revolution.’ Although I had watched that clip several times, this was a take on the way in which Vichy demonstrated its superiority to the Republic that I had never previously considered. Each of the outreach sessions in which I have been involved have left me feeling inspired by the enthusiasm and interest shown by the students involved. Far from being counter-productive, widening participation initiatives open up a two-way channel between the future generations of students and universities. I have found outreach sessions a brilliant way of engaging with an audience beyond the academic ‘bubble’, while in turn students have provided me with a new outlook on my research.

These sessions allow students from all backgrounds to experience university teaching for the first time. They bring students into contact with a range of university-related people: undergraduates, postgraduates, academic and administrative staff. One can feel the enthusiasm of the visiting secondary school students as they enter and leave sessions–outreach really does provide an insight into life beyond the school classroom, and can have a real influence on the students’ decision making process.

My experience of outreach programmes is in stark contrast to Sam Gyimah’s own assessment. Outreach is very much a mutual process, and one which does not simply benefit the student, but also the institution. Without these activities, many students–especially in schools in the Coventry area–would simply never consider university. Instead, the mere contact between university and student opens up an entirely new future. Whether or not these students come to Warwick is not the point; the aim is to encourage study at any university. It is, therefore, important that institutions ensure that financial packages (like the Warwick Scholarship and Warwick Bursaries) are well advertised and instantly available for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The combination of inspiring students to go to university through outreach and financial support once students arrive in higher education will go a long way to ensuring that students from low participation areas seriously consider university education. These two ingredients are essential if universities are to represent wider society in the diversity of their population. While alumni should, of course, be encouraged to donate where possible to their old institutions, these donations should not–and cannot–replace the dual initiatives of outreach and institutional financial support.

November 07, 2011

The challenge of teaching (part 3)

Students should leave seminars and lectures feeling inspired, not bored. Teaching must itself be inspired by research which in turn will inspire students. In one experimental course at Warwick this year, students are using cutting-edge ICT to shape their discussions and ideas (including, notably, iPads), which will result in a formal presentation to a panel. The 'end product' of this course is a presentation involving ICT, which combines passion for the subject matter with a variety of transferable skills (communication, presentation). Tutors must embrace new technologies and innovative teaching methods and spaces, if French is to meet the demands of the new generation of undergraduates. Teaching involves a strong element of performance in its delivery: a performance which must be intensified under the new regime.

There are quick-fix solutions to this challenge: introduce more interactive research-led teaching, in which students can also feed into a tutor's work, demonstrate passion for the discipline as a whole and personal research in particular, and extend this enthusiasm to the wider community. The TeachFirst 'Higher Education Access Programme for Schools', in which Warwick plays an important role, is one method of demonstrating enthusiasm for the subject to a potential cohort of future undergraduates. Widening Participation schemes in general provide a means by which to extend the passion of academics to the community. If French departments are to recruit undergraduates in a competitive market, then the values of French Studies must be communicated outside of departments.

The new fee regime will be an enormous challenge to French Studies as whole. Improving existing teaching through innovative methods (ICT, end presentations, use of primary sources) and through research-driven teaching, then the discipline can overcome this challenge, and if anything, improve its existing status. But it is down to individuals, on the 'frontline'– the seminar tutors and lecturers–to transfer their passion for the subject to existing undergraduates, potential students, and the wider public.


Figures for GCSE numbers taken from The Guardian website http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/aug/24/gcse-results-2010-languages-sciences-french(accessed 07/11/11 at 12.05)

Interview with Michael Gove available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/sep/30/michael-gove-teaching-languages-conference(accessed 07/11/11 at 12.06)

Details of the TeachFirst HEAPS programme were recently featured in an article on the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/education-15592755

The challenge of teaching (part 2)

Although it is often the first foreign language that students in the UK learn, French seems not to have the same allure that it once did. In 2010, for example, Year 11 students abandoned French for the sciences and technology. Whether this reflects an early awareness of future job opportunities or the decline of the French language on the international stage is a moot point: the value of French (and languages as a whole) transcends its immediate, economic value. Communication is an essential skill for any job and in any walk of life, and languages provide a tool with which to develop this ability. Working with people from different cultures and backgrounds is an everyday occurrence for students of French. It is, in fact, always fascinating to observe timid second-year undergraduates return from the year abroad with genuine self-confidence and a frightening level of articulacy.

There is also an intrinsic cultural value to French (which Gove himself noted in an interview with The Guardian on the 30th September 2011): not least the ability to read the greats (the Molières, Racines, Prousts and Camus of this world) in the original and the capacity to watch some of the world's best cinema without recourse to subtitles.

If French is to survive the £9,000 fee regime then the combination of transferable skills and the cultural value of studying both language and culture must be communicated– not just to potential students but to current undergraduates as well. Should undergraduates enjoy teaching and their studies in French, then they are likely to give positive ‘reviews’ to potential applicants. But at the old customer services adage goes: ‘Have one positive experience and you’ll tell three people; have a negative one and you’ll tell ten.’ It is vital that students retain a positive image of their university studies.

Despite the divisions over the future of French Studies research that I alluded to earlier, this research is often exciting and, as is the nature of academic work, original. No one is more passionate about their work than academics, yet this passion is all-too-often covered up in face-to-face encounters with students. The best teaching (at Warwick and no doubt elsewhere) involves a three-way cycle that ought to be the future direction for French Studies teaching. The research of the tutor (including PhD students) shapes the tutor's teaching. Students are therefore invited to discuss this research in a seminar setting, which of course, provokes comments and suggestions which might not have previously been considered. These comments then feed into the future work of the tutor.

A challenge worth rising to

The introduction of fees of £9,000 per year is the greatest challenge facing French Studies at university level

The French have a reputation for revolt and rebellion, which can be traced back to the 1789 Great Revolution and which has not been entirely absent from the 21st century (not least in the Banlieues of Clichy-sous-Bois and Viliers-le-Bel.) Perhaps this rebellious streak trickles its way into the psyche of British Francophiles. Certes, the discipline of French Studies is not without its own mini-revolutions and divisions. French is faced with a number of important challenges: does French Studies adopt a transnational outlook, in which studies of the hexagone are replaced by research on the international role of French and Francophone culture? Should we become more interdisciplinary, collaborating closer with colleagues in other arts and humanities departments? And what role should theory play in our research and teaching, if any at all? There is, in truth, no one single vision for French Studies, despite the claims of some academics. Perhaps the future of French will involve a combination of transnational perspectives, theory and interdisciplinary work, or perhaps French will, to the damage of the subject's image across the nation, divide into rival camps. It's not an eventuality that is especially appealing. Yet the greatest challenge for the discipline in my view, however, lies not in the future directions of research but in the introduction, from the 2012-13 academic year, of undergraduate fees of £9,000 per annum.

Language teaching in this country has been through a series of rollercoaster rides as one Education Minister has replaced another. While the Labour administration (notably under Ruth Kelly, one of Blair's soi-disant 'Babes' and former MP for Bolton West, no less) scrapped the obligation for students to study at least one modern language at GCSE level, the current coalition government, in the form of Michael Gove, has sought to re-introduce languages as part of the 'English baccalaureate'. In the meantime, language teaching has become a core part of the primary school curriculum. There is, in theory, every possibility that a child could study a language from the age of 5 right through to GCSE (or the English 'bac') and beyond. Of course, the English bac is not actually compulsory for schools and languages are not yet back to pre-2004 status.

If languages as a whole have been under attack, then so too has French. Entry numbers at GCSE have fallen dramatically: from 300,000 in 2004 (the year that languages became optional) to 170,000 in 2010. In the past few years, low student numbers have seen French departments at universities across the country face the prospect of closure (Swansea being one such example, where the threat of closure was defeated by strong academic opposition).

August 17, 2011

De Gaulle part 3

In an age where the Gaullist myth has been debunked, it is simply incredible that the Musée de l'Armée commissioned a film with such subjectivity and a lack of historical context. The question, of course, would be whether the huge number of French people who visit the museum approve of the film–I didn't notice anyone else shaking their heads. In any case, it is clear that the myths of two great French leaders–Napoleon and de Gaulle–are preserved for posterity at the Invalides.

*According to the website of the 'Fondation Charles de Gaulle', around 800,000 foreigners visit the Invalides each year, of which many will inevitably speak English. See www.charles-de-gaulle.org

De Gaulle at the Invalides

The Gaullist myth, punctured by both Paxton and Marcel Ophuls's Le Chagrin et la Pitié, is now considered to be one phase in the French memorial process, as outlined by Henry Rousso. That phase has long since been surpassed by a focus on French complicity in the Holocaust (which I talked about in my blog entry on 'Selective Memory'). I visited the Hôtel des Invalides yesterday not so much for Napoleon's tomb (as impressive as that is), but to investigate the new 'Historial Charles de Gaulle', an audiovisual experience on de Gaulle's life. The permanent exhibition is superb: you carry an audio-guide-style set of headphones which click into action as you move around the exhibits. The range of archival footage is also very impressive, although around two-thirds of the documents have not yet been translated into English, which is surprising given the number of Anglophone tourists who visit the Invalides.*

There is also a film on offer in a purpose-built cinema. The film is bitterly, terribly disappointing. Dramatic music and split-screen video footage tries, and fails, to make up for the inaccurate commentary and the misappropriation of newsreel imagery. The film could have been made in 1968, before the appearance of either Paxton's book or Ophuls's Chagrin. The viewer is left with the impression that not only did de Gaulle single-handedly liberate France (no mention whatsoever is made of American-Canadian-British participation in the D-Day landings), but he also liberated much of Africa. The fact that the first African countries to go over to the Free French were of little material importance is glossed over. Vichy is given sparse treatment, and what is actually a clip of Pétain's birthday celebrations is accompanied with a voice-over suggesting that 'A Vichy, le malheur règne' (In Vichy, unhappiness reigns). De Gaulle's coup d'état of May 1958 is depressingly passed off as a democratic rise to power, l'homme providentiel returning to the fold. The context of May '68 is not discussed, and according to the voiceover it is de Gaulle, not Georges Pompidou (the then-Prime Minister) who refused to send in the army to deal with student-worker demonstrations. De Gaulle's absence from France, when he disappeared to consult army leaders in Germany, is simply ommitted.

Two steps forward, two steps back

In 1972, the American historian Robert O. Paxton published what is now considered to be the seminal text on the Vichy regime, his much-read, and incidentally much-translated, Vichy France 1940-1944: Old Guard and New Order. Paxton's book made such an 'impact', to use the modern-day academic parlance, because it smashed the so-called 'Gaullist myth', based on de Gaulle's speech from the Hôtel de Ville on the 25th August 1944. In his speech, de Gaulle claimed that Paris had been liberated by 'la France combattante'. The idea of a France which resisted the occupier and liberated itself single-handedly was the foundation for the Gaullist myth. Nearly 67 years ago, de Gaulle refused to proclaim the Republic, arguing that it had never ceased to exist.

Robert Paxton approached Vichy from the standpoint of an objective, impassionate researcher and looked not in the French archives (closed at the time) but in the German and American state archives. Vichy henceforth took on a different shape: not a regime forced into collaboration, but one which entered actively into a (mostly one-sided) partnership with the Nazis. The Republic had, as Paxton found, been voted out of existence by democratically-appointed parliamentarians. Legally, the Republic ceased to exist on the 10th July 1940. Yet in de Gaulle's view, he had been the Republic incarnate, la France résistante; Vichy was illegal, Pétain an illigitimate leader. De Gaulle's insistence on re-uniting the French people, split, as Pierre Laborie argues, between 40 million Pétainistes and 40 million Gaullistes, effectively swept the more sinister moments of the 'Dark Years' under the carpet. That so many civil servants served both the Vichy regime and the Gaullist transitional government with the same fervour was largely ignored.

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