Robin Hood plan for France

November 17, 1995

Student unrest in French universities has escalated in response to government efforts to meet demands for extra resources, Francois Bayrou unveiled an emergency plan for the most under-resourced universities before parliament last week, stepping into the front line after a government reshuffle removed his secretary of state for higher education.

As Mr Bayrou explained how he would shift resources to bring the worst-off universities up to standard funding and staffing levels within four years, students and academics staged demonstrations in Paris and other university towns.

The parliamentary debate on the education budget and the protests coincided with the national commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the death of De Gaulle.

Observers and commentators did not fail to underline the symbolism of that timing, asking whether another May 1968 student revolt was on the horizon. Mr Bayrou's emergency plan did little to appease protestors. Hours after his speech to parliament, angry students at the Toulouse Paul Sabatier University sat in overnight.

On Monday, they occupied two lecture theatres and are continuing an unlimited strike in support of their demands for more resources.

Students at Metz University have stepped up their action after a weekend sit-in. After visiting the university last week Mr Bayrou offered an extra five teaching posts and 500,000 francs (Pounds 65,500). The students claim an extra 300 posts are needed, while Gerard Nauroy, the university president, who supported the student movement, says there is a shortfall of 160 academic posts.

At Aix-en-Provence, students continued their protest after a weekend leafleting the local community to put their case.

Students at Orleans University are staging a one-week strike, claiming a 12 million franc shortfall in their budget and a similar shortage of teaching posts. The university's governors backed the students and academics joined a student demonstration. Didier Billard, the university president, warned that without an increase, the university, which receives less than two-thirds of standard funding levels, would be in the red by the spring.

Mr Bayrou began meeting student delegations on Monday to try to calm the unrest and held talks with the presidents of the worst-off universities to calculate their needs. Finding agreement will not be easy. The education ministry says Metz needs just 64 more posts in contrast with a university estimate of 160 and the students' demand of 300.

The initial 1996 education budget has been trimmed back by Pounds 8 million. The education minister made it clear his "rapid correction" of unequal university funding could not be based on substantial additions to the budget but would have to come from redistribution.

The ministry has produced tables which show that staffing levels range from less than half the standard rate in some of the newest universities to nearly double that rate in some Paris universities.

According to the standard for measuring university resources, the San Remo system, seven universities are critically understaffed and 36 are under-resourced. Most of these universities are recent ones, with a high proportion of undergraduate courses. But well-established universities which are "over-resourced" argue that their staffing levels are not disproportionate to their postgraduate and research profile.

The Conference of University Presidents has nevertheless welcomed Mr Bayrou's plan and his offer of working closely with the body over the redistribution. Student, academic and research unions, however, argue that this "robbing the rich to feed the poor" is no real solution. In an unusual display of unity last week, unions from across the political spectrum staged a joint press conference to voice their concerns. Their main worry is over the drop in university and research job creation.

For the first time in years, the total number of posts in national research bodies remains stationary this year, while new academic posts are down from 2,252 in 1993 and 785 this year to just 450 for 1996.

Laurent Dianoux, general secretary of the SNCS research union said: "The drop in job creation means unemployment for half our new PhDs. It means extra teaching hours nationwide which would provide 25,000 full-time posts."

Claude Lecaille of the SNESUP academic union added: "The higher education budget is totally unacceptable. The demonstrations are not over yet. Bayrou should watch out."

Mr Bayrou told parliament that the long-promised review of student support would take place early next year. Improvement of student support was a key electoral promise made by Jacques Chirac during his presidential campaign.

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