In the run-up to the French presidential elections, the Socialist Party is insisting that it will not backtrack on the current government’s controversial overhaul of higher education.
Instead the party promises more funds for academia as an investment in “economic development”.
But despite a widespread belief that substantially increased tuition fees are on the agenda for the next government regardless of its political hue, it remains an issue that neither the Socialist Party nor president Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling Union for a Popular Movement dare address head on.
“I’m all for universities gaining greater autonomy,” said Socialist presidential hopeful François Hollande in April last year, referring to a reform by the right-of-centre government that sparked massive protests in 2009.
In 2007, Sarkozy completely overhauled higher education, giving public universities more autonomy and allowing them to raise funds from private sources.
The reform was deeply resented and perceived as a first step towards cutting state funding for higher education. “Political parties who can’t see that academics want this reform repealed suffer from amnesia,” says Stéphane Tassel, head of the academic union SNESUP.
Hollande says he will not repeal the reform, but wants to simplify funding and give state universities real freedom by investing in higher education.
“We must invest heavily in French universities,” argues Bertrand Monthubert, Socialist representative for higher education, “because France needs more and more people who have obtained a higher education degree.”
“France suffers a competitive disadvantage because it has fewer educated professionals than, say, the United States,” says Monthubert, adding that the Socialist Party wants to create 5,000 new jobs in academia.
But with the economic crisis hitting France hard, his party is reluctant to put a figure on its ambitious investment plan for higher education.
Hollande banks on reducing tax loopholes, and on France pulling out of the recession - a risky bet given that the eurozone is still reeling from the debt crisis.
“In times of high debt and recession, we have to act responsibly,” says Monthubert.
“We are not going to worsen France’s financial situation, but investing in higher education is tantamount to investing in economic development.”
Sarkozy’s UMP is also reluctant to set out clear targets for the future. Currently, even keeping old promises is a challenge. In 2009, Sarkozy launched a loan programme to invest €35 billion (£29 billion) in the French economy, earmarking €19 billion for higher education and research.
Tassel complains that the government is not fulfilling its pledges. “We are very far from the billions that were announced; actually, we don’t see the money coming through,” he says.
In an interview with Le Monde, Laurent Wauquiez, the minister for higher education, insisted that his government is “catching up on 30 years of funding shortages for higher education”.
“We have started. But to succeed, we have to continue depending on the means at the state’s disposal.”
Academics are still disappointed that neither of the two main parties has set out tangible investment targets for higher education.
French state universities are underfunded - Paris-Sorbonne University (Paris IV) spends only about €3,000 per year per student, in contrast to the €110,000 spent on an undergraduate at Princeton University in the US, according to figures cited by the BBC in 2009.
“It’s embarrassing that the parties are not displaying high ambitions for academia,” says Yves Lecointe, president of Nantes University. “But given the state of the economy we couldn’t expect much.”
The Conférence des Grandes Écoles (CGE), an organisation that represents elite institutions, is calling on the government to allocate an extra €20 billion - 1 per cent of GDP - to higher education.
The CGE suggests that students should contribute tuition fees amounting to €3,000 after they have completed their studies. Currently, state-funded universities’ very low tuition fees, which are set by the ministry of higher education, cover only 2 to 3 per cent of the institutions’ budgets. (In contrast, grandes écoles, which include both public and private institutions, each have their own policy on fees.)
“The key idea here is that the students give back to education only if they are successful,” says Pierre Tapie, president of the CGE and head of ESSEC Business School. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Another sector body, the Conférence des Présidents d’Université, has also admitted that it would support higher tuition fees if the government introduced an efficient scholarship system for disadvantaged families.
In the run-up to presidential elections in April, the issue of raising tuition fees is the elephant in the room - an explosive topic that neither the Socialists nor the UMP dare address.
Lecointe says higher tuition fees are “the missing parts of the puzzle”. “If you look at all the reforms that have been introduced since 2007, conservatives clearly have tuition fees on their agenda,” he adds.
But Wauquiez denies that his government is considering raising tuition fees.
“In times of crisis, such a move would be unacceptable, especially when everybody is worried about their buying power,” Wauquiez told Le Monde.
New sources of funding
However, Lucie Delaporte, a journalist covering higher education for the French news website Mediapart, says that higher tuition fees seem inevitable.
“Universities are looking for new sources of funding since the reform on autonomy,” says Delaporte. “They know the state is not going to give them more money, so they are considering introducing tuition fees.”
The 2007 reform also allowed universities to seek alternative sources of funding, and appeal to the private sector and alumni.
Michèle Tabarot, a UMP member of the National Assembly who heads the commission for cultural and educational affairs, says businesses are at the heart of the government’s plans to reform higher education over the next few years.
“One of our ambitions is to bring together universities and businesses, and encourage the private sector to finance research,” says Tabarot.
While many universities have created foundations, some acknowledge that persuading French alumni and businesses to invest in state universities is a slow process. Increasing tuition fees would be an immediate financial boon for universities.
Paris-based thinktank Terra Nova, which is close to the Socialist Party, suggests trebling tuition fees, a move that would give higher education institutions an extra €1 billion per year and help fight student absenteeism.
But the Socialist Party has denied allegations that it plans to hike tuition fees if it wins power in the next election.
“We should reform income tax instead of introducing a complicated mechanism of fees to fund universities,” says Monthubert, who wants a fairer distribution of resources.
The current government has pitted universities against one another to obtain state funding, a move that has increased inequalities.
“The funding gap has widened over the past five years; some are very very rich and others very poor,” says Delaporte. “Some will probably close.”
Poorer universities enter a vicious circle, some claim, in which reduced funding from the state encourages researchers and students to move to larger universities, thereby further reducing funding. Universities in the west of France, such as La Rochelle University, are hit particularly hard.
But unless the Socialists pull back on university autonomy, this trend is unlikely to stop.
“The Socialists don’t admit it, but they agree with conservatives in thinking that higher education in France needs to evolve, that it should be structured around several poles of excellence,” says Delaporte.
But critics argue that this makes it harder for some students who do not have the means to live in larger cities to access higher education.
Delaporte adds: “Socialists give conservatives a lot of flak because they haven’t addressed this issue, but it’s not clear what [alternative] they have to offer.”