Paying gas bills with reserves ‘risks punishing good management’

French ministry wants universities to use unallocated funds to cover up to 500 per cent increases in energy costs

October 5, 2022
Winter landscape with icicles on the gas pipeline
Source: Getty

French universities must cover soaring energy costs with rainy-day funds before they get extra money, a policy that a sector leader has said will punish those who have budgeted responsibly.

Universities across Europe are bracing for soaring energy bills this winter after a gas price surge driven by post-pandemic demand and sanctions on Russia.

The University of Strasbourg recently faced protests from student groups and unions over its “energy sobriety” plan, which would close its campus for an extra two weeks in January and February, with students to be given more holiday and taught remotely.

The Unitary Trade Union Federation said the closures would have “harmful consequences for staff and students alike”, transferring heating costs on to them and disrupting research.

The French higher education minister, Sylvie Retailleau, has ruled out a wholesale return to distance learning to reduce bills, telling RMC radio that classes will be “mostly” face-to-face this winter.

Extra funding would be available only on a case-by-case basis for universities that are struggling with bills, she said, adding that they must exhaust unallocated reserves rather than pausing recruitment or scrapping planned projects.

Manuel Tunon de Lara, president of the national rectors’ conference France Universities (FU), told Times Higher Education that institutions are supposed to have enough reserves to cover 15 days of operation, but that the size of cushions varies.

While he said it was right that universities shouldered some of the national burden, turning to reserves before bailing out universities would disadvantage those who have run responsible budgets. “The risk is to punish the good students, the universities that did the job correctly and have good management,” he said.

Bigger and more research-intensive universities tend to have higher energy costs, which have increased anywhere between 50 per cent and 500 per cent, he said, with FU estimating extra energy costs nationally at about €120 million (£104 million).

The University of Lille, one of France’s largest universities, has already had to vote through a €3.9 million deficit budget this summer. “We would like not to shift to remote working, but we fear we’ll have to if there’s no measure to help universities face the financial burden of energy,” Lille vice-president Etienne Peyrat told THE.

Universities that vote through deficits two years in a row would usually have their management taken over by regional academies, but Professor Tunon de Lara said he expected those that did so as a result of energy costs would be pardoned.

Voting through a deficit budget was a “sort of political act” and a “signal” to the government to show that an institution is in difficulty, as was Strasbourg’s two-week holiday plan, he added. “It was a signal to the government rather than an actual solution.”

Ms Retailleau has said shifting the 2023 academic year to help manage energy costs also remained “on the table”. Professor Tunon de Lara said shifting the year was possible “to some extent”, but such a fix would create new problems across France’s varied climes, with those in the south having to pay more for air conditioning in the summer if the year went back.

All French higher education institutions are expected to submit their own energy sobriety plans by the end of October.

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