A little less égalité, a little more income, please

With public finances stretched, the French think the unthinkable on fees. Clea Caulcutt reports

April 5, 2012

In the face of the economic downturn, French higher education is beginning to debate openly the prospect of introducing higher tuition fees - but university presidents warn that the country must boost scholarships and state funding before making any change.

The debate was sparked by comments made by Louis Vogel, head of France's Conference of University Presidents, which have lifted the lid on the highly contentious issue.

"If we do introduce [higher] fees, they must be lower at the undergraduate level and higher at the master's and PhD level," he said.

"It is our duty to encourage as many young people as possible to study and it is in those undergraduate courses that we have the most students from disadvantaged backgrounds."

Professor Vogel cautioned that fees must not be used as a stopgap measure to compensate for a lack of state funds.

"Our universities lack proper resources and our society must choose to properly fund higher education," he said, warning that "if France doesn't, it will lose its ranking in the world".

Hitting the brakes

Professor Vogel's willingness to discuss fees is timely, given signs that the European economic crisis is leading the French government to slam on the funding brakes after a sustained period of acceleration: the university budget has increased from £8 billion in 2007 to more than £12 billion today.

Most tuition fees at public universities in France are incredibly low - between £150 and £300 per academic year.

Relatively free education remains a cornerstone of French egalitarianism and the introduction of higher fees has long been taboo: in an interview with French daily newspaper Le Monde in February, Vincent Berger, president of Paris Diderot University, said that such a move would be "unthinkable".

But with public finances stretched, analysts warn that if funding is not addressed, there is a risk that the quality of higher education will suffer at a time when French youth needs it most.

"In times of crisis, getting a higher education diploma is a sure way to protect our youth against unemployment," said Eric Charbonnier, education analyst at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. He added that attitudes to higher education fees were changing.

"I've attended student union meetings where students have said they were ready to pay more if they had better job opportunities and the state introduced more grants for disadvantaged students," he said.

Despite low tuition fees, French universities are failing in their mission to attract applicants from poor backgrounds. Since 2007, access to higher education for young people from poor families has dropped from 36 per cent to 31 per cent, France's National Observatory of Student Life reports.

But Mr Charbonnier warned that if higher fees were introduced, the French sector as a whole would need significant reform.

"Forty per cent of students who leave with a master's degree [lack key skills] after five years, and in the humanities that ratio reaches 60 or even 70 per cent," he said.

If students were required to pay higher fees, they would want to get their money's worth, he added.

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