As more than 1.5 million students start a new academic year, French universities are becoming more autonomous within a looser higher education system.
Education minister Jack Lang has called on universities to show flexibility in introducing initiatives as renovation of the traditionally rigid and theoretical university system continues.
The greatest change, to be brought in over the next few years, will be replacing the degree structure with a system of modules and credits. This will allow students to study new combinations of subjects, promote continuing education and encourage student mobility, especially in Europe.
A start has been made with the introduction of about 15 multidisciplinary courses for the initial two-year diplôme d'études universitaires générales (DEUG) and ten licences (equivalent to a bachelors degree). Changes in teaching methods in scientific DEUGs that were piloted at six universities since 1998 included a core curriculum in the first term and students working in small groups, and they resulted in higher pass rates.
Universities are also devising new professional degrees. The licence professionnelle was introduced a year ago. This year there are 182 on offer, bringing the total to 377 involving 9,000 students.
Bernard Belloc, head of the Conférence des Présidents d'Université, which represents France's university leaders, said institutions needed more autonomy in today's society. Autonomy meant freedom to create and operate strategic projects that respond to ever more diversified demands, he said. Challenges facing universities included opening up internationally, taking a lead in new technologies, doing more in their communities and helping more of the public into education.
France has 2,160,000 students in higher education - 1,515,000 of them in universities.