Bayrou ends reform marathon

April 25, 1997

A FRENCH university reform package has finally been adopted at the end of a marathon consultation process first launched after student protests in October 1995.

However the measures were trimmed to achieve consensus when they reached the final hurdle this month - review and adoption by a national committee representing all partners to higher education. Education minister Francois Bayrou wanted an across-the-board reform of university course structure implemented next October but that was considered unrealistic by many universities.

Only the reform of the first year of studies will have to be introduced immediately with another year's grace given for changes to following course years.

Mr Bayrou pushed through the immediate introduction of classes in study methods for all new students who will also get study support from postgraduate "tutors". On leaving the final talks at 5am, he said: "I am happy both for the universities and for the students. This proves one can unite different and distant viewpoints."

The minister had always insisted he would only introduce changes with the backing of all parties and spent the final 48 hours going through a tough negotiation. The main aim of the course changes is to improve students' success rate. The first year, divided into semesters, will include modules on study methods and related subject areas in all courses.

Students will be able to shift to another course within the same field, or move between the different types of post-secondary education including preparatory classes for the grandes ecoles or lycee-based technical courses.

Student unions fought to ensure that the strong emphasis on orientation in the first year would not be used to fail undergraduates within months of the non-selective entry of all baccalaureate holders.

Frederic Hocquard, student negotiator of the UNEF-ID union, said: "We won concessions on continuous assessment, on the keeping of all pass grades in case of overall failure in examinations and the guarantee that exam papers remain anonymous."

One major source of conflict which remains is the "professional experience module" wanted by the minister and which will be introduced by decree. A joint proposal with the council of French industrialists for compulsory work traineeships as part of all degrees was rejected recently by students who feared it would be a form of cheap, untrained youth labour.

Another bone of contention is the lack of any extra resources to go with the reform package. Student and academic unions have been pressing for a higher education spending bill to commit parliament to specific budget increases.

Mr Bayrou rejected the idea of a spending bill and promised to make an "inventory" of universities' needs by the start of June. His next task is to introduce a new student allowance, promised by president Jacques Chirac in his election campaign two years ago.

Changing the complex system of support for those already benefiting has proved too sensitive, with students particularly anxious not to lose their rent rebates.

The ministry decided that from next October, all new students would get the single means-tested allowance intended to cover all the former types of support. Setting up the system, which will get no extra funding but will be expected to be fair in order to be acceptable to students, looks set to become the education ministry's next marathon.

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