April 13, 2009

Paris Teachers Strike Alters Abroad Plans

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This is the first in a two part series examining how international political strife is affecting students’ study abroad plans.

Since January of this year, faculty strikes in Paris have altered 18 Cornell students’ study abroad experiences, taking place through the Emory-Duke-Cornell (EDUCO) program at the University of Paris.
EDUCO hosts a Paris Abroad program for students attending either of the three universities in its name. Cornell students studying abroad in Paris through EDUCO signed up this semester for one of its four partner universities in the French capital: University of Paris 1: Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris 4: La Sorbonne, Paris 7: Denis-Diderot and Institute d’Etudes Politiques (Sciences-Po).
The strike, however, has deeply affected three of the four institutions, with the exception being Sciences-Po, one of Paris’s grandes écoles, or specialized schools.
“The faculty of a lot of the schools are on strike because they want to make the universities more independent from the French state and give the presidents more power,” said Kristen Grace, associate director of Cornell Abroad, who recently returned from Paris. “French universities, however, have been completely state-subsidized in the past. It’s clear that they’re trying to move to a system that’s more like the one we have here in the U.S., so who knows what’s going to happen.”
Despite the faculty strikes, students were not forced to return home or to sign up for classes at other institutions unaffected by the strike. With the majority of Cornell’s EDUCO students unable to take classes at the universities they enrolled in, EDUCO dipped into its contingency funds and hired supplemental instructors — referred to as “tuteurs” by the students — for the semester in order to provide the students with the education they paid for.
Consequently, many Cornell Abroad-EDUCO students have been taking their classes at the EDUCO center in central Paris rather than at the universities they were attending. For many students like Eli Meltz ’10, this has been a confusing situation.[img_assist|nid=36794|title=No school|desc=Protests take place at Place de la Bastille in Paris this semester as teachers attempt to break from state control.|link=node|align=right|width=|height=0]
“For me, the strike has definitely been somewhat of an inconvenience, particularly for one class which had one regular meeting at the University of Paris, where it is supposed to meet, before the strike started,” Meltz said.
“The hardest part was not knowing whether or not the course would start to meet regularly again at the University of Paris. It’s pretty hard to be taking a course with two professors and to not know which one will actually be assigning work or grades,” he added.
Because the strike has not yet ended, the supplemental instructors — who range from teachers at other institutions to senior graduate students — will remain as the primary instructors for students whose classes have not yet resumed at the university. Students will be a taught a regular syllabus and tested normally so that they will earn full credit for the classes they signed up for at the beginning of the semester.
“It’s not the students’ fault that they can’t take university credits at the Parisian institutions,” said Grace. “They need full instruction right away and full knowledge that Cornell will be taking care of them.”
Unlike American students studying abroad, however, French students lack the luxury of having a program like EDUCO look after them during the strike.
“What I find perhaps most difficult to understand is what the French students do during these strikes. There are many courses [in which] professors are still not meeting with students at the university, so I don’t see how any French student directly enrolled in the university would get credit for the semester, and this could obviously throw off future plans for them,” Meltz said. “Overall, if nothing else, the strike has made me appreciate the American university system that much more — where classes meet at their scheduled times and professors do not decide to stop teaching their classes partway through the semester.”
According to Grace, there is a lot of friction between the French faculty and the conservative government of France.
Valérie Pécresse, minister of higher education, spoke about the strike on French radio in February, according to The Guardian. While on air, Pécresse voiced her concern for the situation of the students.
“I deplore the fact that students are not getting their grades back. They should not be the victims of this strike,” Pécresse said.
According to Grace, responsible planning is necessary for the future of the Cornell Abroad program in Paris since striking is a tool that the French students and faculty regularly use to express their discontent.
“A strike for two to three weeks is an interesting cultural experience,” said Grace, regarding Cornell’s students abroad in Paris. “But eight weeks or more is beyond anything they’d ever wish for.”