FRANCE's grandes ecoles are as "closed as clams" and will be "forced" to open up to more foreign students, education minister Claude All gre said as he unveiled the first major plans for higher education since his appointment last June.
His two "key new aims" are to open up universities to lifelong learning and higher education institutions to European and international exchange.
All of France's universities are invited to submit proposals for permanent and comprehensive professional training courses. The ten best proposals will get funding to start schemes based on links with business and industry and must remain open all year long with courses throughout the academic vacations.
"There is already lots of training, but it only gives bits of paper. Universities can give real qualifications. "In future, people will not get their lifetime qualifications at 20, but must be able to reach any position they are capable of filling in the course of their life," MrAll gre said.
He admitted that he had no idea whether the attempt to move France to lifelong learning would succeed, because of the "huge psychological barriers".
On the international front, the Sorbonne is to host a European conference on harmonisation of courses and qualifications during celebrations of its 800th anniversary next spring.
"Britain, Germany and Italy have asked us for bilateral talks, so the time seemed right for a general discussion on how to make courses compatible year by year," Mr All gre explained.
However, the minister had to be drawn before he would comment on the issues of university assessment, which has clear links with that of harmonisation. There are no official comparative indicators in France and no league tables because all universities officially are equal and offer degrees ofidentical worth.
One hint that there may be fundamental disparities is to be found in the Franco-British exchange scheme, Entente Cordiale, which takes British graduates at bachelors' level but French students at masters' level.
Mr All gre agreed that an independent academic auditing office publishing comparative data is needed, but said he "couldn't promise" one because of the problems of getting different evaluation bodies to merge.
Outspoken on the grandes ecoles, he said one-third of the top schools' intake would have to be foreign students.
"We will force them because they are as closed as clams," he said, regretting that the ecoles are strong on erudition but not on innovation.
A working party chaired by Jacques Attali and including Julia Kristeva and Georges Charpak is drawing up recommendations to bring universities and grandes ecoles closer and making the ecoles more "innovatory".
The minister also promised more university chairs for foreign professors on the basis of a successful formula whereby visiting academics work half the year in France, getting just over half a full salary.
This enables them to continue teaching in home universities in Eastern Europe or Africa where salaries are now insufficient or non-existent.
Social engineering is also on the agenda for this year, with confirmation that successful school-leavers from "very disadvantaged" families will be offered all expenses if they become magistrates or go to the elite politicalscience school - the gateway to ENA, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration.