Claude Allegre, France's new education minister, plans to "slim down the mammoth" of state education by introducing administrative reforms which would decentralise management of the system.
But he said that universities, which have endured years of underfunding, will escape the drive to cut out waste and redeploy education resources to areas of greatest need.
In his first talks with unions, Mr Allegre also promised to prioritise research and academic job creation and student support and has set up working parties with the unions on these issues. But with a national budget audit pending, no concrete measures were announced. Mr Allegre warned: "I am not Father Christmas."
In his first policy statement, prime minister Lionel Jospin ruled out a mini-budget in July. True to his tough-talking image, Mr Allegre has made it clear that there will be "no more joint running" of the ministry with teachers' unions.
He warned student and academic union leaders: "Those organisations which applauded my predecessor's (Francois Bayrou's) announcements now hold responsibility before the students next term. There was no funding behind the promises."
Michael Dahan, general secretary of the largest student union, UNEF-ID, said: "We're concerned about the authoritarian approach and lack of concrete measures."
UNEF-ID has called for the immediate implementation of the student support system promised by Mr Bayrou. It also wants extra funding and teaching posts for the new academic year, the requisition of private higher education institutions funded with public money and guarantees on study permits for foreign students.
The pro-communist student union UNEF is also demanding extra funding for next term and a guarantee that all new students will get a course place in the subject of their choice.
Academic and research unions have welcomed the promise of job creation in universities and research institutes.