A row has erupted in French higher education over a privately funded university that is facing legal action from the government.
Université Fernando Pessoa, an institution based in the town of Toulon, has only several dozen students, but it is causing a stir in the education establishment.
The university, backed by French and Portuguese investors, opened in November and offers courses including dentistry, speech therapy and pharmacy that lead to Portuguese diplomas. In France, such health studies are particularly selective. Only a limited number of university students who pass competitive exams in their first year are allowed to go on to train as doctors, dentists or chemists. In speech therapy studies, only 5 per cent of first-year applicants pass the entry exams.
However, Université Fernando Pessoa allows students to pursue their ambitions for an annual fee of between €7,500 (£6,360) and €9,500 without having to pass such exams.
Jacques Lachamp, the head of its pharmacy department, said the new university compensates for medical shortcomings in France. “The French state doesn’t train enough health professionals, and many students who fail their entrance exams go to Belgium or Romania to get their diplomas,” Dr Lachamp said.
But the Paris Association of Students in Speech Therapy said the institution gives weaker students the means to bypass crucial university exams. “[Having to pass] the speech therapy entrance exams [ensures] crucial foundation skills and knowledge,” said Chloe Daigmorte, the association’s president. “If students fail, maybe it’s because they aren’t capable of pursuing the challenging courses they are applying for.”
One of the harshest reactions has come from the French government, which is seeking legal action against the university. In a press statement, Geneviève Fioraso, minister of higher education and research, says she is “concerned about the quality of teaching and the level of relevant infrastructure at Fernando Pessoa”. The ministry also alleges that paperwork to open the institution was unsatisfactory and that the term “university” had been misused.
The institution dismisses the allegations.
Salvato Trigo, dean of Universidade Fernando Pessoa - a Portuguese institution affiliated with the Toulon university - said France’s reaction showed “xenophobic” motivations.
On Portuguese radio station TSF, he said that “a lot of France still thinks Portugal is a country of immigrants, masons and Paris slum-dwellers from the 1960s and 1970s”.
Dr Lachamp added that French health officials were shunning healthy competition from abroad. “I knew the establishment would react strongly, but I didn’t expect the reaction to be this violent.”
Jean-Loup Salzmann, president of the French Rectors’ Conference, said accusations of xenophobia showed that the university’s managers might be “clutching at straws”.
“In France, we have a very open, international view of higher education,” said Professor Salzmann. “Our country has welcomed many foreign universities, such as Georgia Tech Lorraine [in Metz] or the American University of Paris. We are not against this university because it is Portuguese, but because it does not respect the rules regulating medical studies.”
There are also concerns that the students who obtain Portuguese qualifications at Université Fernando Pessoa will not be able to practise in France.