Strikes scupper reforms

November 28, 2003

Confusion over the future of plans to give France's universities more autonomy to is deepening as students continue to mount protests.

After denying reports last Friday that President Jacques Chirac wanted to put university modernisation reforms on hold, education minister Luc Ferry announced their abandonment on Saturday, saying there was "no legislation planned in the government's schedule, nor on the parliamentary agenda".

As he spoke, majority students' union the Unef claimed that 17 universities were on strike in protest at the reforms, which would give universities greater autonomy, including control over budgets, and open them up to greater collaboration with local and regional authorities and with business and industry.

Supported by academics' union SNESUP, critics of the reform claim it will lead to the marketing of higher education, financial disengagement by the state and inequality.

But the Conference of University Presidents (CPU) reiterated that it was "absolutely necessary" to reform the law and warned that abandoning university modernisation would threaten the public service of university education.

Michel Kaplan, vice-president of the CPU and head of Paris-1 university, said protesters had been misled and the reform would not mean a rise in fees, the introduction of selection or the commodification of higher education.

Prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said on Sunday that university autonomy was "the right direction" but gave no indication of when legislation might be introduced. In response to critics, he called for "social dialogue to find a consensus to guarantee to all university partners that there will be neither privatisation nor merchandising".

The reform would also introduce the European higher education system based on three, five and eight years with transferable credits, which has already been adopted by about 20 universities.

Mr Raffarin said that the government still intended to pursue European harmonisation with a working document to be presented to unions in December.

The future of the reform was cast into doubt when Le Monde reported that an official of Mr Chirac's office had said the plans were "no longer on the agenda".

It said Mr Chirac did not want protests at universities as he launched a debate on the school system. A spokesman for Mr Ferry said the story was groundless.

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