Fire in the provinces

November 17, 1995

Toulouse, Metz, Aix-en-Provence, Marne-la-Vallee - this week strikes have been, to use Le Figaro's word, cascading through the French universities. So far agitation has been mainly in the provinces in the newer and worst-funded universities as they grapple with rapidly rising numbers following France's remarkable success in pushing up the percentage of young people achieving the baccalaureat (now 65 per cent) and thus qualifying for university.

The fire has been fuelled by education minister Francois Bayrou's attempt to buy off early campaigners by providing extra money, producing a spate of "me too" demands.

Mr Bayrou is in a difficult position. Last week's Cabinet purge removed the secretaries of state for higher education, for schools and for research (the two latter being among the female ministers contemptuously labelled "Juppettes"). Mr Bayrou, now ranking third in the Cabinet, is left with no one to carry the can.

Worse, the row with the universities erupted just as the prime minister, Alain Juppe, was preparing the legislature to face hard truths about the social security budget unveiled on Wednesday. Mr Bayrou therefore proposes to tackle the underfunding of provincial universities by implementing the long-ignored formula which, at least in theory, allocates equal resources to all universities in accordance with their numbers. But he will have to do so without extra money.

Bizarrely the Conference of University Presidents has broadly welcomed this proposal - a move explained by their use of majority vote. Provincial universities are not only clamorous, they are numerous. The better off universities in Paris are not amused. Many of them are also struggling with too many students and too few libraries. They have now formed their own group which may decide to lobby collectively. If that fails they will not do too much to discourage their students from taking to the streets as they have done before. As the head of one of the grandes ecoles said this week, in his efforts to damp down the fire in the provinces, Mr Bayrou may ignite Paris.

The unusual thing about the French situation is not the burgeoning numbers, complaints about inadequately prepared students, underfunding or pressure groups within the university community, but the readiness of students to revolt - and their unpredictability when they do so.

There are many, some nostalgic perhaps for the excitement of 1968, who see such action as enviably successful. Again and again French governments have been forced to abandon proposed reforms. But what has been achieved? France's universities remain grossly underfunded. Two out of three students who enroll do not get to degree level; one in three leaves without any qualification. It is proving difficult to alter curricula to provide courses which better prepare people for jobs. Unemployment among the young has tripled in ten years - though the education system holds 65 per cent of all 20-year-olds.

The reputation of French higher education depends not on the universities but on the grandes ecoles, insulated by their different status and funding, and defending their position as a micro elite unaffected by mass higher education. Though preparatory class enrolments are down, the competition for places in the grandes ecoles remains ferocious. But this elite sector is also under criticism for producing too homogeneous a clique out of touch with the lives of ordinary citizens. The grandes ecoles formed their own club in 1968 when their privileged position was threatened. If this new wave of discontent were to produce demands for change, perhaps by expanding and by altering their curricula, they too could be expected to mobilise to resist.

It is not a scene which compares favourably with other European countries, including the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, where governments have apparently acted more harshly in defiance of higher education's interests.

As French higher education threatens to erupt once more, those who envy the readiness with which France's higher education community tackles problems by taking the struggle to the streets might pause to ask whether the game is worth the candle.

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