Paris adopts streetwise pose

February 21, 1997

FRENCH education minister Francois Bayrou has proposed "global" university reform covering teaching, research, student aid, academic careers and management.

This is the first attempt at university reform by a rightwing government that has not raised hackles in academia or brought students on to the streets.

The proposals have had a cautious welcome from the university presidents' body and some unions, which note that no budget or timetable are given for some key measures while others echo existing arrangements in many universities.

The main proposals are:

* the academic year is to be reorganised into semesters with a first orientation semester intended to cut the high first-year failure rate

* the array of student support will be replaced by a single means-tested student allowance

* all academics will have to do some undergraduate teaching and a proportion of promotions will be earmarked for those who opt for extra teaching or administrative duties instead of research

* a technical agency will provide university management expertise and universities will set up foundations to manage private funds

* when the four-year university expansion plan, Universite 2000, ends in 1999, a new plan, Universite 2000 Plus, will aim to provide an office for every academic, study rooms for students and cafeterias to encourage students and staff to share "community life".

Other proposals include vouchers giving the right to return to education and systematic student evaluation of their courses.

The plan follows months of consultations. The working groups are being consulted on finalising plans so that government decrees can be drafted by March and come into effect in October.

Previous proposals for such measures as an end to student rent rebates led to street protests. Mr Bayrou's approach avoids confrontation on such sensitive issues.

The new student allowance will be socially more just, with wealthy parents losing large tax breaks and students from middle-income families getting more support. But some student leaders are asking whether the government will push through the necessary tax reform before the next general election if it means losing voters.

Student unions are satisfied with the principle of a transfer of support from the family to the student. Pouria Amirshahi, UNEF-ID leader, said: "For the first time, students have imposed a reform and are at the centre of measures on courses and support."

However, both pro-socialist UNEF-ID and communist UNEF complain that extra resources are needed to fund the new measures.

The reorganisation of the first semester meets with widespread approval. Students will study their chosen core subject and related disciplines, and study methods.

After first semester exams, they can continue, switch to a related subject or opt for a different course, including lycee-based technical or scientific diplomas.

All degrees would have a "professional experience module" with workplace training. Students holding office in unions, clubs or associations can count that as professional experience, as can postgraduates earning a stipend for "tutoring" undergraduates or other university-based work.

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