Reform group faces collapse

January 31, 1997

Union participants in working parties on the reform of French universities may pull out if education minister Francois Bayrou does not produce concrete proposals by the end of January.

Their frustration came to a head as Mr Bayrou announced that "for the first time in 30 years, a quiet reform" was under way without triggering any of the protest movements that have scuppered past reforms.

Claude Lecaille, secretary general of the main academic union SNESUP, said: "Ever since the start of the process we have been going round the table, with Bayrou listening without making any real commitments - and he keeps asking us to find solutions to university problems which do not cost money."

Mr Bayrou first promised a mid-consultation report for January and then said it would come by mid-February. The pledge to reform the most problematic aspects of the university system was made after student protests in autumn 1995.

Student unrest ended with the release of emergency funds and the commitment to enact reforms in full consultation with students and academics. All parties concerned submitted their proposals early last summer.

"There are no negotiations in the working groups because there are no government proposals to negotiate," complained Mr Lecaille. The SNESUP believes that the government plans to make changes in line with a tight budget.

Sticking points are the number of academic posts and the workload of staff drafted up from secondary schools. The union argues that the annual 6.9 million hours overtime represents 36,000 lecturers' jobs, while cuts in funds for doctorates are leading to a drop from more than 10,000 PhDs a year to just 8,000.

University teachers who have moved from secondary schools keep their teaching load of 360 hours a year because they do no research. According to the unions, the ministry is only willing to cut that load if in turn, assistant lecturers work longer hours.

A new idea for a "university management agency" put forward by university presidents also worries the academic union, which fears it may lead to deregulation.

Another point of contention built up last week when the French employers' council, the CNPF, rejected union calls for amendments to its proposal for a nine-month student workplace training scheme. The unions argue the scheme could amount to little more than a source of cheap youth labour.

Although Mr Bayrou has expressed a willingness to work on a compromise formula, the CNPF last week said it would withdraw the proposal altogether rather than negotiate it.

With a national summit on youth scheduled for mid-February by the prime minister Alain Juppe, disagreement on major issues has increased sharply.

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