France's elite Institute of Political Studies plans to break an educational taboo by increasing fees by up to three times, but with safeguards to protect poor students.
Richard Descoings, director of the Paris-based institute known as Sciences Po, announced that he wanted to increase fees from €1,050 (£744) to as much as €4,000 a year. He got a hostile response from students, who said the substantial increase broke a fundamental educational principle.
A statement by the student union Unef denounces the "scandal of the explosion in student fees". It claims they mean "hidden privatisation" and "threatened the very foundations of French educational public service".
French university fees, currently between €137 and €265 a year, are fixed by the government. But Sciences Po, a more autonomous grand établissement , controls its own budget, salaries and fees.
The institute has become more internationalised in recent years, with reforms including compulsory studies abroad and adoption of the European degree structure. It numbers 600 foreign students among its roll of 5,800.
Two years ago it broke new ground by widening its social intake with an alternative entry procedure to the competitive examination for bright lycee pupils from disadvantaged areas.
In a letter to students, Mr Descoings explains why he thinks it is essential to challenge "the taboo of financing the systems of higher education and research".
He says that globalisation and greater international mobility create strong competition between higher education establishments to provide high-quality teaching, research and facilities. After 15 years of sharply rising state funding, "the increase in resources, of which universities have an indispensable need to remain competitive on an international scale, can only come from a diversification of the sources of finance", he writes.
But public opinion and the tradition of free public education militate against students and their families paying more towards higher studies, he writes. Free education leads to university expansion, but also to the "pauperisation of the universities, constituting in reality an obstacle to equality of opportunity".
According to Mr Descoings, educating a student at Sciences Po costs between €8,500 and €9,000, twice as much as a student in human sciences at a university. He says that even with increased charges, Sciences Po's fees would be lower than equivalent establishments abroad or French engineering and management schools. Most Sciences Po students are exempt from fees in any case.
A commission of the institute's academics and other staff, senior civil servants and students held its first meeting last week to work out the reform's practical details.
But Unef condemned the "explosion" of enrolment fees as a "scandal". Mr Descoings clearly intended to covertly privatise Sciences Po, it said, and the reform "threatened the very foundations of public service".
A spokesman for Unef at Sciences Po said the union opposed a system that ultimately relied on the wealthy and jeopardised the institute's policy of widening access. He said that Mr Descoings was acting outside his responsibility; that there had been no time for consultation; and that the union was against "any neo-liberal attempt to commercialise education".