Revelations about a draft report commissioned by French education minister Francois Bayrou have overshadowed his launch of a vast university consultation process decided upon last autumn to appease striking students.
Last week, the education department sent out half a million copies of a "white paper" to students, academics and other concerned parties setting out ten themes for discussion of university reform.
Since the end of the student unrest last November, Mr Bayrou has insisted no changes will be made without taking into account the responses to his document.
But a working party set up before the student unrest is writing a report that calls for radical reform. It proposes the reintroduction of selection in secondary schools, giving universities the power to hire and fire academics and turning first-level university diploma courses into foundation courses.
The working party, headed by former industry minister Roger Fauroux, was set up after an election campaign pledge by president Jacques Chirac to hold a national referendum on state education.
Since the autumn, student and academic unions have argued that the Fauroux commission contradicts the promise to approach reform through grassroot consultations in the universities.
Pouria Amirshahi, UNEF-ID student union leader, said: "We have requested a meeting with Fauroux three times and got nowhere. I'm shocked by the group's working methods." When Le Monde leaked the contents of the draft Fauroux report, Mr Bayrou quickly pointed out that the government was not "committed in advance" to following its advice.
"The subject of state education is sufficiently sensitive for everyone, politicians and media, to show great prudence and a sense of responsibility, avoiding any provocation or sensationalism," he said.
The leaking of the draft report can only further affect a consultation system which was already facing criticism. The main academic union, SNESUP, said that the May 25 deadline for responses to the white paper was unrealistic and called for an autumn deadline.
"The debate could get bogged down," warned SNESUP general secretary Claude Lecaille, who said Mr Bayrou's consultation document "was heavily weighted" and "totally forgot the issue of funding, posts and premises".
Student and academic unions are likely to be particularly wary of the Fauroux proposal for foundation courses, which suggests an intermediate level between secondary and higher education.
A similar proposal last year led to a protest movement in several universities. There is however general agreement that the diploma courses, with a zero per cent failure rate, pose one of the French university system's main problems.
Mr Bayrou's consultation document picks it out as one of its main themes ways to reduce the high failure rate. Both Mr Bayrou's national consultative conference and the release of Mr Fauroux's report are scheduled for June.