Student unrest hits Paris

November 24, 1995

Student action in France has escalated and spread to some of the Paris universities as education minister Francois Bayrou's attempt to tackle complaints about unfair allocation of teachers and funding appeared to backfire.

His plan to shift resources to the universities hardest hit by short-falls in teaching posts and other needs provoked escalating protests from students.

All last week, Mr Bayrou received student delegations from striking universities and sent envoys to some of the hot spots. He also met with all the university presidents to discuss the redistribution of resources.

In spite of his appeal for student "responsibility", student activists went on the offensive. In Metz, a ministry envoy was taken "hostage" for several hours. Perpignan students occupied the railway station while Orleans strikers took over motorway tollgates.

Student, academic and research unions issued a joint call for a national day of action this week which lycee student groups promptly backed. Lycee students provided the bulk of the demonstrators last winter when protests scuppered plans for a minimum youth wage.

Lycee students and staff object to the transfer of the elite lycee teaching corps, the "agres", to newer universities to help meet the academic shortfall. There their statutory teaching load is twice that of research academics.

Student concern about poor job prospects has once again come to the fore. Complaints about lack of university resources are increasingly coupled with the denunciation of many university qualifications as useless in a country where youth unemployment is of epidemic proportions.

"I do not have a magic wand which can turn all their demands into funds," commented Mr Bayrou, who insisted he is trying to enact an "overall plan", not a case by case approach.

Compounding the minister's problems, university presidents are also in a militant mood. Those who head the worst-off, mainly new, universities have often given their backing to the student strikes. Meanwhile, those who head the wealthier, mainly older, institutions are planning joint action to defend their resources.

Alain Gaudemer, head of the elite scientific Orsay University said:"We categorically challenge the idea that we are too well-off." Orsay has already lost 36 posts in two years. "The mathematics department, one of the most dynamic ones, has been worst hit," he added. It lost posts just as it won the Fields medal, the top international award for mathematics, and Mr Gaudemer is anxious that its international stature should not be lost.

The older universities also point out they have serious problems of overcrowding and dangerous buildings. Mr Gaudemer says two of his faculties are not safe. At the new university of Marne-La-Vallee near Paris, students have plenty of space and an adequate number of teachers but are also on strike.

Daniel Laurent, the university head, believes there is an element of imitation in their action but the students are voicing concern over their prospects. "There was massive investment in university building under the Universit 2000 plan for mass higher education, but it was not accompanied by expansion of everything needed to run a university," said Mr Laurent. "It is good that Mr Bayrou is taking the problem on, but he has a very limited margin for manoeuvre," he said.

Mr Laurent should know. His report on university reform sparked student protests last spring and had to be withdrawn.

In the midst of university crisis, the appointment of the head of the CPU, the university presidents' conference, Bernard Dizambourg to a ministerial post has surprised the academic community by its timing. Mr Dizambourg was due to stand down as head of Creteil Paris 12 University and therefore as head of the CPU, which he had turned into an active partner in higher education policy. He backed Mr Bayrou's redistribution plans as head of the CPU and still stoutly defends them.

"It is not a method for withdrawing resources from the better-off universities," he insists. "The disparities are not only in state allocations but in the universities' own income and in spending per student." Mr Dizambourg now heads the ministry department for libraries - another university trouble spot.

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