State retains firm grip on regulation

August 20, 2004

FRANCE. As the learning market looks set to go global, Times Higher writers check out how rogues are weeded out worldwide

French universities are closely regulated public institutions, accredited and funded by the state, which guarantees the diplomas they award.

Private higher education establishments are not entitled to call themselves universities and must carry another designation such as "institute", "centre" or "school".

Until 1968, universities were tightly run by the Government, but after student strikes and protests against the system they were restructured and granted some autonomy, including their own administrative councils and the capacity to manage their own affairs, programmes, training and research.

Government plans to further increase their independence - notably budgetary - fell through last year.

The state is responsible for creating universities according to demand from local communities. Sometimes a new university will start as a branch of a "mother" university, then be given full status, as happened with the Dunkirk-based Littoral University, which began as an offshoot of Lille University.

University diplomas are regulated by rigorous national evaluation commissions comprising academics and other experts. The commissions can accept or reject the proposed programmes or send them back for revision.

Every university has its degrees evaluated every four to six years.

This year is key for programme evaluation of universities as they reform their diplomas around the new European degree structure.

Private establishments, such as theological colleges and business or journalism schools, can qualify for state recognition of their degrees in three ways - through contracts with universities that deliver their diplomas, through evaluation by a jury nominated by the state, or through a state certification procedure. Some private institutions may qualify for government subsidy if they perform "public service to higher education" or if students have no alternative place to attend.

Although foreign establishments may operate in France, so far there is little competition, but if the General Agreement on Trade in Services leads to liberalisation of the market in higher education, that could change.

An education ministry official foresees difficulties: "If a foreign university (from outside the EU) that delivers its own diplomas wanted these to be recognised in the French system, I don't know how we'd deal with that."

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