Bayrou promises to include all views at launch of strategy talks

February 2, 1996

Talks on the future of the university system have got under way at the French education ministry, where all representative bodies, unions, committees and associations have been invited to help draw up an agenda, writes Stella Hughes.

Francois Bayrou, the education minister, said: "Once we have that agenda and a working schedule, then everyone - staff and students - will get a chance to have their say on it."

The national consultations on higher education are the outcome of last autumn's student unrest. Mr Bayrou has promised the process will be completed by June.

An attempt to resuscitate the protest movement before the talks began failed dismally when organisers of a national student demonstration drummed up only a handful of supporters and had to call the gathering off.

The minister is determined to make students and academics partners in the reform process, gaining their commitment to avoid another spate of anti-government demonstrations.

"We have to re-write the principles of our university system together. If we don't establish the principles, any reform will be greeted with suspicion," said Mr Bayrou.

The search for a change in method follows years of student protest triggered by ministerial reports and reform projects.

Lille University president Bernard Alluin, the outgoing vice chair of the CPU, the university presidents' conference, said: "It all depends on his capacity to mobilise support. He does appear to be showing a strong political will and it is important that he is a heavyweight in the government."

Symbolising Mr Bayrou's commitment to dialogue, academic and research union leaders were for the first time invited to his New Year press reception.

"My personal fear is that some partners will stick to their underlying conservatism and go on saying the only problem is lack of resources. That's not true," noted Mr Alluin.

According to Mr Alluin, academics have to acknowledge theirs is not a single-profile profession and that research should not be the only path to preferment. "Careers should get the same boost when people shoulder extra teaching and careers advice duties as from research," he said.

The sensitive issues of student grants and enrolment fees will also be raised. The government hope is that by launching a global debate, students will not baulk at any single issue, but continue working out a whole package of gradual reforms.

A key part of that strategy is to focus on the medium and long- term - involving the students of today in decisions affecting the students of tomorrow.

The acknowledged priority is the search for solutions to the disastrous pass rates in the first two years of university.

Mr Bayrou has made it clear he opposes the idea of turning those two years into a separate, "university high school" sector.

Meanwhile the commission, which was nominated to examine problems in the education system before last autumn's student protest movement, has announced that it will continue to look at higher education in parallel with the national consultation.

Commission chair and former industry minister Roger Fauroux said he believed his efforts could still contribute to the general search for solutions to higher education's problems.

The final cost of his commission will not be known until it completes its assignment next June.

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