Radical French reforms delayed

June 13, 2003

French education minister Luc Ferry has been forced to postpone his flagship reforms that will give more autonomy to universities until at least autumn.

Prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin last week insisted on suspending the legislation Mr Ferry had planned to present to the national assembly at the end of June as workers in the public sector, including education, intensified industrial action over proposed retirement reforms.

The postponement of what would be the biggest shake-up of higher education since 1984 was a serious blow for Mr Ferry, who believed his reforms were necessary to modernise the universities and allow them adapt to "new challenges" of international competition, more professionally oriented education and partnerships with local authorities.

The reforms would give universities greater financial autonomy, with global budgets to include spending on staff. Rule changes would widen the range of staff eligible to vote for a university's president and make it easier to amend university statutes.

In line with the government's decentralisation policies, the reforms proposed developing closer links between universities and regions.

They would also establish the harmonised European degree structure known in France as LMD (licence-master-doctorat, diplomas equivalent of three, five and eight years' higher education) and the European credit transfer system.

The Conference of University Presidents was broadly in favour of the final draft of the reforms, which had been due for discussion last week by the higher education and research consultative committee (CNESER). But several university teachers' and students' unions opposed the reforms, which they called anti-democratic and a threat to public service education.

About 30 universities had called for withdrawal of the bill to give time for a "proper debate", according to lecturers' union SNESUP, and some had postponed exams because of unrest.

In a statement cancelling the CNESER meeting, the education ministry says "conditions today are not fulfilled for an objective and constructive debate on the necessary adjustments".

It says that Mr Ferry will hold consultations with all representatives of the university community during coming weeks "so they can make their contribution to the university modernisation bill".

Last week, schoolteachers staged their tenth walkout since September when they joined a general public service strike. There were fears that the baccalaureat exam, due to start on June 12, would have to be postponed if no settlement was reached.

Unions representing schoolteachers had additional grievances with Mr Raffarin's decentralisation plans, which will transfer some national education responsibilities, such as recruitment of non-teaching staff, to local authorities and result in cutbacks in budget and jobs.

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