Delay in reform risks new unrest

June 28, 1996

Long-awaited French university reform plans, promised in the wake of last autumn's student unrest, have turned out to be just the first stage in a long-term process without any extra funding.

The first changes, including tutoring of first-year students by graduates, are to be introduced in October 1997 and major reforms, such as new technology faculties, are to be phased in over a decade.

"Until economic growth returns, there will have to be redeployment of resources," insisted prime minister Alain Juppe, who praised education minister Francois Bayrou's consultation process for "avoiding the pitfall" of treating resources as a "pre-condition for change". Unable to offer a programme of funding, Mr Bayrou promised a "concerted programming of timetables and priorities", when he unveiled the plans at the Sorbonne.

He said the extensive consultations which had led to the proposals would be continued to establish how and when those proposals would be turned into action.

Jean-Marc Monteil, president of Clermont-Ferrand 2 University and chair of the university presidents' committee, said: "The hardest part is yet to come. These principles must become operational. No one will understand if the nation defines aims but does not provide the resources to achieve them."

The committee appears to be on a collision course with the government over the funding issue. It has made it clear that its continuing support for Mr Bayrou's approach to reform depends on clear commitments in the autumn budget for higher education.

By linking extra spending to economic recovery, Mr Juppe has clearly ruled that out. According to Mr Juppe, savings can be made by using university premises more than "five months a year".

University presidents have already refuted the claim that their buildings are greatly under-used. The reorganisation of the first two years of university courses into semesters is expected to cost more.

Leftwing student unions have also condemned the absence of commitments on resources in the plans. The unveiling of the proposals has come at a quiet time of year, with exams followed by the summer vacation. But that timing means that the sensitive issue of concrete measures and therefore of resources will coincide with the autumn term, which is often a flash-point for student unrest.

"We cannot rule out further student protest movements," argued Adrien Schmitt, president of Strasbourg I University. "Mr Bayrou had little choice in the timing and achieved considerable consensus over his proposals. But that consensus could still collapse."

Hemmed in over timing and budget, Mr Bayrou has also to contend with political pressure within the rightwing governing coalition and from the Fauroux commission report on education.

Some of the recommendations of the commission headed by former industry minister Roger Fauroux contradict Mr Bayrou's proposals, in particular the idea of separating the first two years of university into a distinct entity.

The education minister is determined to "respect the history and tradition" of university structure and to "avoid" turning any part of it into a "secondary level" structure. President Jacques Chirac gave his blessing to Mr Bayrou's scheme but Mr Juppe asked him to "take up the Fauroux report and make proposals in the coming months".

The university president's committee has pointed to the contradiction in producing "prescriptions by experts" alongside Mr Bayrou's consultative process, which "met the requirements of democracy".

Two members of the Fauroux commission walked out last week just before the report was published.

The student on the commission, Michal Delafosse, said there were "many negative aspects", deplored "the lack of commitment on resources" and said as a future teacher, he could not put his name to a vision of education in which "it would not be good to be a teacher".

Jacques Julliard, deputy editor of Le Nouvel Observateur, also walked out over the attitude towards teachers and because of "the politics" of the commission which became a "card in the infernal struggle between the pedagogical trio Chirac-Bayrou-Juppe".

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