Hot-Docs take Bayrou to task

May 31, 1996

With just three weeks to go before a self-imposed deadline for unveiling his university reform plans, the French education minister revealed nothing in last week's parliamentary debate on the universities.

The debates at the national assembly and the senate were billed as a significant phase in consultations leading to the June reform announcements. Francois Bayrou described the university problem vividly, saying France is the "only country in the world" with such an "allergy to change".

"The students fear change, governments fear the students and reform becomes impossible," he noted. Mr Bayrou is now caught in a delicate balancing act. There is no hope of extra cash to solve some of the overcrowded universities' worst problems and pressure is coming both from President Chirac's RPR party and from students, academics and researchers.

Mr Bayrou has again insisted that the key to an acceptable solution lies in the method chosen: progressive, consensus-seeking and shared decision-making, instead of sudden, top-down measures.

His announcement will come in the middle of student examinations and is not expected to stir any immediate student action. However, student unions are threatening another autumn of demonstrations if extra funding is not made available and researchers are already taking to the streets.

While Mr Bayrou addressed the national assembly, researchers from the public research institutions staged demonstrations in Paris and other towns to protest against budget cuts and high jobless rates for young PhD-holders.

For the first time, PhD students have set up their own union, "HotDocs", and are calling on Mr Bayrou to adopt a "thesis contract" binding the different partners - student, PhD, professor, department or laboratory, institution - in an attempt to clarify and improve PhD students' positions.

Meeting the minister for the first time since the consultation process began, UNEF-ID leader Pouria Amishahi warned Mr Bayrou: "After last December's demonstrations, students may feel cheated. If the universities are not given extra resources, the protest movement will start up again."

As the minister increasingly appeared to be hemmed in on all sides, there was speculation that he would be dropped from the cabinet.

At a party meeting just days before that debate, RPR MPs booed the name of the education minister, who belongs to the UDF, the minority partner in the government. The RPR made public its demands for a national referendum on education - to which Mr Bayrou is opposed - and for a substantial graduate student grant. But it is also strongly opposed to any extra money going to the universities.

Faced with the RPR offensive, prime minister Alain Juppe reiterated his support for his education minister and the tone of RPR speeches in the parliamentary debate was then noticeably more moderate.

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