French row over student poverty

March 3, 2000

PARIS

The French education ministry has rejected a claim that 100,000 students may be living in poverty.

The report, commissioned by the ministry itself, is about the workings of the students' social plan introduced by education minister Claude Allegre. It was compiled by Jean-Francis Dauriac, director of the Creteil Centre Regional des Oeuvres Universitaires et Scolaires, a regional centre that is part of a national network of agencies concerned with students' financial and other needs.

He estimated the potential number of students living below the poverty line at 100,000 and recommended a new grant for all postgraduates no longer living with their parents.

But in a statement, the ministry's directorate of higher education said that "the figures contained in the report are not based on any in-depth statistical study. The mere fact that students are no longer living with their parents cannot signify that they are living below the poverty line."

It said that the student scheme was planned over four years and entailed regularly increasing the numbers entitled to benefits; nearly 440,000 students, more than a quarter of the student population, were already receiving financial aid.

It pointed out that the plan increased the numbers qualifying by lowering the threshold for means-testing parents' incomes; exonerated students just above the eligibility level from enrolment fees and social security contributions; extended payments to the large number of undergraduates who had to repeat a year; introduced merit awards to bright students from poor families; and provided financial help for students faced with emergencies.

Whatever the true figures are for student poverty, a government circular clarifying conditions and national criteria for the allocation of benefits, which was criticised in the Dauriac report, will be published in mid-March. To date, only 1,300 emergency payments out of a quota of 7,000 have been made.

The report was submitted to the minister less than a month after Le Monde reported that welfare workers were advising poor students to sue their parents for financial support. In extreme cases students ineligible for means-tested benefits who consulted the Centre Regional des Oeuvres Universitaires et Scolaires were told how to lodge a judicial complaint under article 203 of the civil code that stipulates that "through the fact of marriage, spouses enter into an obligation to feed, support and raise their children" until they are 25 years old.

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