Blasts in a legal minefield

February 7, 1997

IT IS THE sad privilege of the University of Paris-Dauphine to be a favourite target of judicial action. Every few years it loses some landmark case, which sets a precedent for other universities, and tightens the noose which the law on higher education places around their necks a little bit more.

The law was introduced in 1984, in the heyday of the socialist government, during Francois Mitterrand's first term, and has remained in force ever since. In 1986, when the right came back into power and tentatively tried to amend it, the attempt ended in disaster. Students took to the streets and Alain Devaquet, the minister for higher education, had to resign, an episode credited with earning Mitterrand a second term. No one since has shown any taste for repeating the experience, and we are stuck with the 1984 law for a long time to come.

And yet, some of the constraints that it sets on the higher education system are hard to believe. Universities are strictly forbidden to select students for enrolment. Selection has become a dirty word in French politics. It is alright to flunk students once they are in, but one is not to prevent them from enrolling in the first place. Once they have their baccalaureat, they can go to any university and enrol on any programme they want.

Neither can universities make students contribute financially to the cost of their studies. Those who enrol on programmes which require expensive equipment and individual training, like computer science, and those who enrol in law or humanities, all pay the same token amount, fixed by law, of about Ff600 (Pounds 67) a year. Universities can ask students for additional contributions for well-defined purposes, but these have to be voluntary and the regular course of studies must not be dependent on them.

It is clear that this simply cannot work; or rather, that its operation comes at great expense to students, professors, and taxpayers.

But every student wants to keep all options open as long as possible because it increases the chances of getting a higher degree. Even if it means failing after two or four years, one can always fall back on a lower degree. Student life does have its advantages: there are generous tax breaks for parents until students reach the age of 24, and social benefits for the students themselves of up to Ff26 billion a year, twice as much as the universities' total operating costs.

The incentives are all wrong. There is an incentive for students to stay in the system as long as possible. Money is supposed to come from the central government, which has a strong incentive to cut costs, but cannot compromise quality. So low-cost, low-quality programmes are favoured, with professional and technological education being the prime victim.

France has a dual system in higher education, whereby a very selective system of grandes ecoles coexists with the non-selective university system. The result is that the second is seen as a fallback from the first, a second chance offered to those who could not make it.

So it is understandable that universities all over France have been trying to bend the law. Every once in a while, judicial action, usually brought by students, calls universities to account. In 1990, the French Supreme Court ruled on an appeal from the University of Paris-Dauphine. The case was originally brought against the university in 1984, by a student who was denied a place because of insufficient grades at the baccalaureat. Since this could not be stated openly, the university claimed that it had no room for him. But the high court saw through this, which was not very difficult since the student proved that he was first in line the day applications opened - and ruled against the university.

One month ago, the university lost a second landmark case. Its network of computers was available to students for a fee of Ff500 a year. For this, students had access to several hundred machines of different types, supervision by attendants, with all kinds of capabilities, word-processing, computer software, electronic mail and access to the Internet. A student member of a right-wing organisation, the Union Nationale Universitaire, took the university to court, claiming that the computers were so useful for his studies that they should be free. The court upheld his case, and struck down the university budget for 1996, which had to be voted on again in December.

There are other cases where universities have been condemned for bending the law. In Grenoble last year, the university had set up physical fitness tests for students applying for physical education programmes. The applicants won their case against testing in court. In Paris, the universities and the ministry had an informal rule, under which students from Paris and students who had just obtained the baccalaureat were given priority over students from outside Paris and students who had earlier obtained the baccalaureat. Not so, said the judge. A student who applied to a Parisian university after failing in medical school, and had been turned down because he fell into the second category, went to court and won.

Is this a case of "government by the judges", whereby judges impose their views on education on reluctant universities? No. It is just the fact that the 1984 law is straining the higher education system.

It is no surprise that many universities are trying to slip through the noose, and no surprise either that the judge has to put it back when called to do so.

After losing its case before the Supreme Court, Paris-Dauphine required applicants to submit their high-school grades early and now sends them a letter saying that admission might (or might not) be difficult, instead of asking for the baccalaureat grade and giving them a straight yes or no. After losing the 1996 case on computer fees, the university still has to decide what to do: a change in the procedure for collecting the money needed to support the computer network might be in order. In Grenoble, the students who were admitted without any fitness test will probably be flunked at the end of the first year. In the longer term the strain may be eased with a drop in student numbers. A second possibility is a change in the law, either by a referendum, as advocated by Jacques Chirac before his election, or by an act of parliament. In the meantime, universities are navigating the channels of the law like sailboats in the rocks off the Brittany coast.

They also have supporters cheering them on. No less a person than President Chirac visited the University of Paris-Dauphine recently and said it was an example other universities should follow. I hope they do. There will be more interesting trials to write about.

Ivar Ekeland is a formerpresident of the University of Paris-Dauphine.

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