Besides universities, a large number of institutions are involved in higher education and research in France. All of these institutions operate according to their own rules linked to their own missions, cultures and instruments (budgetary tools, management software, pilot measures, etc.). The results? Communication difficulties, redundancies, lost time, ill-employed personnel, and finally a “user” service deemed perfectible.
In an effort to make the system more efficient, the Ministry for Higher Education and Research (MESR) launched an ambitious simplification program in 2016. At the outset, MESR wanted a long-term evaluation of its measures. Clément Pin, a junior researcher at Sciences Po’s Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Evaluation of Public Policies (LIEPP) is in charge of conducting this evaluation.
For at least 10 years now, an intense and ongoing movement to reconfigure higher education and research has been underway in France: Research Pact in 2006, Law on university freedoms and responsibilities in 2007, Campus plan in 2008, Investment in the Future programs since 2010, Fioraso law in 2013. At the same time, new institutions are being created (like HCERES and ANR) and existing procedures are strengthening. All of these reforms have made overall operations more complex. Hence the launch of this simplification plan, conceived as a lever to improve the performance of the higher education and research system, facilitate mobility within it and reduce operational costs while guaranteeing a high quality of service. But given the many coordination challenges, simplification processes are themselves complex.
Covering highly operational aspects, the simplification plan consists of 70 measures deployed at a very granular level: tools, procedures and information circulation.
These measures specifically touch upon 4 areas: student life, staff member careers, research activities and building management. They involve several crosscutting dynamics.
The most important one – the dematerialization of procedures and more broadly of digital transformation – concerns student enrolment, scholarship requests, internship agreements, teaching and administrative staff hiring and voting in internal elections.
A second group of measures covers the harmonization of administrative practices through the alignment of procedures and the pooling of management tools.
Other tools follow a more political, and even prospective logic, by supporting the transition to the broadened responsibilities and skills (Responsabilités et compétences élargies (RCE) – that is, the autonomy – of the Community of Universities and Higher Education Institutions (COMUE), as well as the de-concentration of research support staff management.
Etymologically, to simplify means to transition from a multiple to something unified. But objectively, simplifying an action (understood as a process) consists of reducing the number of sequences and intermediary steps for someone to reach a goal. Thus, the evaluation process consists of identifying and analyzing the practical and cognitive obstacles to a better coordination of institutions and actors in order to better understand them.
But the idea of simplification also includes a subjective component: that of reducing the perceived necessary effort, in terms of expended time and energy, by a user seeking to benefit from a service.
In order to conduct this evaluation, a study was implemented at three levels: the central administration; institutions (universities); and targeted audiences (students, academic and administrative staff). Conducted at a small number of universities selected for their different institutional, demographic and social characteristics, it focuses on ten measures involving various action systems meant to benefit different categories of audiences.
The section covering service quality analyzes the response to interventions, particularly by the users – students – and measures decision-makers’ operational consideration.
The challenge is to analyze how the different institutions and the different levels interact, how these interactions are organized, and whether they enable – or not – the circulation of the information and the knowledge needed to act and improve action.
Clément Pin is a sociologist and postdoc at the LIEPP