France unveils reforms

June 21, 1996

Long-awaited university reform plans unveiled in Paris this week are more an attempt at "social engineering" than fundamental remodelling, according to French education ministry officials.

Critics from leftwing academic and student unions argue that the absence of new funding makes the plan more a matter of social tinkering. Rightwing unions and political parties have praised the plans.

Flanked by prime minister Alain Juppe in the main lecture hall of the Sorbonne, Francois Bayrou, the education minister, announced a series of consensus-based changes which will be implemented gradually from October 1997 onwards.

After seven months of consultation since last autumn's student strikes, another year will be spent discussing implementation of the measures, with the aim of defusing protest by ensuring participation. The plan includes no radical reforms and rules out selection of students at university entrance level.

The government has not pledged any new resources for the badly overstretched higher education sector. Long-standing commitments on such matters as student support will have to be met by redeployment of existing funding.

Many of the proposals have been suggested or tried before. The first two years of university are to be reorganised into semesters with an initial introductory semester to prevent students losing an entire year if they founder or change subject.

The initial two-year diploma courses are to be simplified and their number reduced. The failure rate on diploma courses reaches 60 per cent in some subjects.

Degree students are to have terms spent in foreign universities counted towards their degrees.

All the different types of student support are to be reorganised to provide a single form of means-tested student social income, promised by President Chirac during his election campaign.

Mr Bayrou acknowledges that this is the trickiest issue. Students have already taken to the streets to defend their right to rent rebates, which will have to disappear to make way for the new student income.

Universities will be given more managerial freedom but the ministry itself is to design their future "departments of technology" bringing together vocational, professional, engineering and technological research courses.

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