Private French university takes flak from rivals

September 15, 1995

The first French version of a United States-style private university kept a low profile when it opened last week. Amid stinging criticism in the French press and with demonstrators demanding its requisition just 158 undergraduates went through the electronic turnstiles of the "Pole Universitaire Leonard de Vinci".

They have at their disposal brand new studio apartments, 11 lecture halls, six restaurants, language laboratories, a computerised library with 70,000 books and CD Roms, sports facilities, a medical centre and shops.

Built with 1.3 billion francs (Pounds 166 million) of public money and charging up to 26,000 francs in annual fees the futuristic building, bristling with all the latest technology, particularly enrages students and staff at the overcrowded Nanterre University, just a mile away.

"We can see it from Nanterre - the whole set up is totally unacceptable," said Loic Dutronc, one of the few dozen protestors who turned up on opening day. Located in the Paris suburb of Courbevoie, the building has its own footbridge to the business quarter of La Defense.

The university's supporters argue that it is a unique experiment in tying higher education to market needs and say generous grants make access possible for students from poor families.

"What distinguishes us is the very strong employability of our students," said director Michel Barat. However, far fewer links with big companies have been made than were hoped for.

Opponents of the university promise more and bigger demonstrations once term starts next month. They say Leonard deVinci should become the 14th public university of the Paris region. Much of the French press appears to agree with that assessment. Daily paper InfoMatin called the university "in-egalitarian and elitist", pointing out that the total intake of 360 students this month puts the investment by tax-payers at 3.6 million francs a head (about Pounds 440,000).

"That figure makes you uneasy when you know the huge needs of French universities," it wrote, next to photos of empty lecture halls.

Liberation poured scorn on the American style adopted by the university which calls itself a "pole universitaire" because only state universities can be called "universite".

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