The French Education Minister has promised priority for students' social needs and called for greater international competitiveness in higher education as a growing majority of universities adopt the European degree structure.
But in a speech marking the beginning of the academic year, Francois Fillon ruled out more immediate freedom for universities to manage their own affairs. This was despite a demand from the president of a leading scientific establishment who said that the Government's promised research reform would be pointless without greater university autonomy.
A total of 2,282,000 students are enrolled this year in French higher education - ,000 more than last year, representing 52 per cent of the 18 to 25 age group.
University students account for 1,362,000, while others are studying in technology institutes, preparatory classes for the grandes écoles , teacher-training colleges and engineering, business or art schools.
Mr Fillon said conditions of student life revealed the "inequalities of our society". In two-thirds of university towns, students had difficulty finding accommodation, a situation exacerbated by the rise in the number of foreign students.
The Government is committed to building 50,000 housing units over ten years, and renovating another 70,000, Mr Fillon said. Other measures included a pass that would save students on grants from having to pay upfront guarantees when signing a lease, and generous grants awarded on grounds of need and mobility.
Mr Fillon said students would be able to buy personal computers "for the cost of a daily cup of coffee" over three years, equivalent to 10 to 15 per cent off market prices. The number of wi-fi terminals in universities would quadruple in four months to more than 2,300.
Mr Fillon also called on universities to increase France's international competitiveness, and described their entry "into the European framework" as a "strategic tool". He said more than three-quarters of French universities had adopted the European degree structure of three, five and eight years' study, known as LMD - licence (bachelor's equivalent), masters and doctorate.
But while greater autonomy for universities would not be delayed indefinitely, Mr Fillon said universities were "not ready to enter the debate".
Gilbert Béréziat, president of the University of Paris-6, Pierre et Marie Curie, said the Government's planned research law would achieve nothing without a "reorganisation of the university system and without giving more autonomy to universities".
He demanded more control for universities over budgets, research, hiring of personnel and property ownership, and an equal footing with the big research organisations such as the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Inserm, the medical research institute.
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