French universities must have more say in running their own affairs, according to Bernard Belloc, head of the country's university presidents' organisation.
Professor Belloc, who became leader of the Conférence des Présidents d'Université (CPU) in December 2000, said that the French system was still very centralised and universities lacked the degree of autonomy common in countries such as Britain.
"French universities are at a crossroads," he said, professionally, as they open up to the economy with more oriented diplomas, and internationally, with introduction of a new European degree structure and credit system.
Legislation in 1984 set out the principles of university autonomy and the powers and responsibilities of their presidents, who are elected for five years. But, said Professor Belloc - an economist who is president of the University of Toulouse-I (Sciences Sociales) - the state still exercised tight control over the university system. "Only 15 to 20 per cent of a university budget is voted by the governing board," he said. "Most will not be allocated, authorised or controlled by the university governors, but by the minister or regional authorities."
Universities should be given as much responsibility as possible to manage their own resources, such as decisions on awarding grants to students, Professor Belloc said.
Universities also lacked the freedom to manage their own staff, notably concerning academic appointments, or the ability to define the duties of their personnel, he said.
But he emphasised that autonomy was not the same as independence, and that universities had to continue to fulfil their public service obligations.