France to find space for 1.6m

October 20, 1995

French universities, facing chronic space problems, opened their doors last week to an estimated 1,588,000 students, an increase of 46,000 on last year.

The particularly good baccalaureat pass rate meant that an extra 18,000 school-leavers won a right to a university place. One education ministry official said: "There are no major problems, the start of the university year has been a success."

However at Rouen University the dean of the science faculty refused to start the new term, claiming there was no money to buy any teaching materials. Students went on indefinite strike in support of the demand by the dean, Michel Lerestre, for extra funds. They calculate the shortfall at Ffr12 million (Pounds 1.5 million).

The main student union, UNEF-ID, said: "There is total disorganisation in some universities like Nanterre and serious overcrowding." Spokesperson Carole Haz said the union is still gathering data.

Oversubscribed sports and art courses were causing problems. The sudden rush to sign up for sports diplomas, which can lead to a physical education school-teaching qualification, took universities by surprise.

At Creteil University near Paris and at Lille II University, would-be students camped out to be sure of getting on the sports course. Lille University called in riot police when protesters staged a sit-in at the president's offices. Creteil University finally agreed to open a third sports section to cater for the heavy demand. Lille University held a draw to chose applicants for the 175 places on its sports course.

Student unions opposed university attempts to select students according to physical aptitude for these courses. Such selection is theoretically illegal in France. Some disappointed applicants were angry that their sporting ability was not taken into consideration.

Similar complaints came from disappointed arts course applicants who had won commendations for their art work in the baccalaureat. A third group of unfortunate applicants are those who passed their baccalaureat a year earlier and either took a year off to work or travel, or who began one course last year and now want to start another.

French law requires the university system to take all newly qualified school-leavers who apply but makes no mention of those who passed their baccalaureat a year earlier. Faced with soaring enrolments, many use this legal loophole to turn down applications from earlier school graduates.

Medical students who failed the highly selective first-year examinations and want to enrol in life science courses are hard hit.

By the end of the month, the education ministry should announce consultations on a reform of the student support system - a key electoral promise made by president Jacques Chirac.

The two main difficulties are the need to find extra funding and the promise to streamline the myriad strands of student support into a single access system. Universities and the ministry are also bracing themselves for reports soon to be released indicating that a startling number of university buildings fail the most basic safety regulations.

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