Six of the best 'could be better'

July 19, 1996

France's six new universities are dynamic and have reached a level of development which is "irreversible", but state aid has been "notoriously inadequate", according to the academic assessment body, the Conseil National d'Evaluation.

The start-up investment of public money, which is still being paid, tops 4.7 billion francs (Pounds 590 million), over half of which comes from local and regional authorities. The CNE says central government funding has, apart from money for new buildings, been "insufficient, whether for teaching and research equipment, for running the universities or for staffing levels".

The four universities in the Paris region: Versailles-Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines, Marne-la-Valle, Evry and Cergy-Pontoise and two in northern France; Artois and Universite du Littoral are all five years old or less and cater for a total of 41,000 students.

The CNE says the original aims of decentralising higher education within the Paris region and reducing student numbers inside the capital are "well on the way to being fulfilled". The northern universities have "offered a real possibility of democratising higher education, with over a third of their students grant-holders" from low-income families, notes the report.

The audit points to a lack of research as a big weakness of the new institutions. It cites low levels of recruitment of research academics, "the absence of any support from public research institutes, in spite of incentives . . . and little support from mother-universities".

In only one case have entire research teams transferred from a Paris university - to attractive and nearby Versailles. However, the report praises the efforts made to develop research and offer research-based post-masters courses, despite the obstacles.

It is more critical of the universities' record on using their measure of freedom from institutional constraints to develop initiatives.

The CNE concluded that "when one measures the effort already made by these universities with the backing of local and regional authorities, and the long road still ahead, it demonstrates the danger of going too far with a policy of scattering universities everywhere".

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