Public universities, public failure?

This is from the may 12, 2006, New York Times:

There are 32,000 students (…) but no student center, no bookstore, no student-run newspaper, no freshman orientation, no corporate recruiting system. The 480,000-volume central library is open only 10 hours a day, closed on Sundays and holidays. Only 30 of the library’s 100 computers have Internet access.  The campus cafeterias close after lunch. Professors often do not have office hours; many have no office. Some classrooms are so overcrowded that at exam time many students have to find seats elsewhere. By late afternoon every day the campus is largely empty.

(Sounds like a familiar university?  Think again.) 

Sandwiched between a prison and an unemployment office just outside Paris, the university here is neither the best nor the worst place to study in this fairly wealthy country. Rather, it reflects the crisis of France’s archaic state-owned university system: overcrowded, underfinanced, disorganized and resistant to the changes demanded by the outside world.
Read the rest here:

Alex Tabarrok reflects on the US vs. French system:

The United State’s has one of the most admired university systems in the world and one of the most deplored k-12 systems.  Could the difference have something to do with the fact that universities operate in a competitive market with lots of private suppliers while k-12 is dominated by monopolistic, government provided schools?

What would our university system look like if it operated like the k-12 system?

Look to France for the answer.  The riots of 1968 forced the government to offer a virtually free university education to any student who passes an exam but as a result the universities are woefully underfunded especially for the masses.  Amazingly, with just a few exceptions for the elites, students are required to attend the universities closest to their high schools.  Sound familiar?

Well, many public universities in the US are pretty good–perhaps due to the competition with private ones?  To be sure, one would have to look at a large sample of university systems (public, private, mixed) to determine whether public universities work or not, and why.  But it seems like France would be an underperformer in such a comparison.