France's university presidents have warned the government that its decision to hold consultations on the future of higher education must not lead to the shelving of urgent problems.
Two issues which the Conference of University Presidents says must be tackled without delay are the dangerous state of a number of university buildings and the "crying" need for more non-academic staff.
According to the education ministry's own assessment of the university repair bill nation-wide, Fr4 billion (Pounds 500 million) is needed to meet safety standards, with Fr2 billion of that needed urgently.
Adrien Schmitt, president of Strasbourg I University, said: "To have an idea of what that means, compare it to the universities' total annual maintenance budget of Fr672 million. That covers all the upkeep of our buildings, so special repair work will have to come from extra state funds."
Dozens of university buildings risk being closed down by safety inspectors, according to the presidents. One, Bernard Alluin, said: "The buildings at my university, Lille III, should be closed."
The university heads point out that since responsibility for maintenance was transferred to them from the ministry in 1989, there has been an unprecedented amount of repair work carried out.
Bernard Dizambourg, first vice-president of the Conference of University Presidents and head of Paris XII University, said: "We do not want that responsibility to be withdrawn. We want to be given the means to finance and manage the repairs as well."
It is not only ageing buildings that pose problems. The new Marne-La-Vallee University in the Paris suburbs has closed a new building containing five lecture halls and a student restaurant because of fears of structural faults in the roof. University president Daniel Laurent said: "We have to act, not talk. If anything happens to our students, it is our legal responsibility, not the ministry's".
On the second urgent issue, non-academic staff levels, the Committee of University Presidents estimates at least 6,000 more staff are needed over the next four years. In an exhaustive study based on official figures, a com-mittee report shows that the average ratio of students to administrative and technical staff has sunk from 22.5:1 in 1983 to 34:1 in 1994.
But a far worse situation prevails in the university "annexes" which have sprung up in small towns as part of the higher education expansion programme. There, the ratio is an astonishing 245 students to one statutory staff member. The government established 800 new administrative and technical posts this year.
The Committee of University Presidents warns that this rate of expansion - if it is kept up - will only provide 3,700 jobs in four years, whereas the 6,000 it calls for is an absolute minimum, based on increased productivity and job transfers.
Mr Alluin said: "A lot of work has been carried out on the exact staffing needs of the universities and on modernising management. We do not want a process that sidelines efforts already undertaken and which could lead to rapid solutions."
The university presidents say that in principle they are not against national consultations on higher education. But the announcement of the consultation process by education minister Francois Bayrou surprised most parties and brought only lukewarm reactions.