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Reforms aim to calm unsettled universities

FRANCE. An ambitious package of measures puts students at the centre of higher education, reports Jane Marshall

Reorganising the calendar, simplifying first-degree courses and a tentative stop towards a students' charter were among ambitious reforms for the perennially unsettled universities unveiled by education minister Francois Bayrou last week.

M Bayrou also ruled out introducing selection as a means of cutting student numbers. But prime minister Alain Juppe, while supporting the plan, made it clear there would be no extra cash.

Two days after M Bayrou presented his proposals,the commission set up by President Chirac to investigate education in preparation for a referendum on the entire system also reported its findings.

M Bayrou's reforms are the latest of many attempts in recent years to restructure the universities, and are based on a debate he launched last October.

This stemmed from the president's election promise of a student charter, but became more urgent after students protested against chronic overcrowding, understaffing and lack of resources at the end of last year.

M Bayrou sent out a 10-point questionnaire to all corners of the academic world. Formulated after reading thousands of pages of submissions, his proposals attempt to satisfy the differing needs and demands of the various groups concerned, bridge the rifts between traditionalists and progressives and introduce change without cost.

M Bayrou stressed his reform was based on consensus. His philosophy, he told the newspaper Liberation, was "reorganisation of the university around the student". His only sticking point was his refusal to bow to demands from the Right to introduce selection. All school-leavers who have passed their baccalaureat have a right to higher education - hence the overcrowding.

The measures, most of which will start in autumn 1997 or 1998, include: * Replacing the present six-month university year, with two semesters totalling 10 months, in line with other European countries; * The first semester will become a transition period, with support for students to ensure they have chosen the right course, in an effort to cut the high early drop-out rate of one in five; * Simplification of the two-year first degree; * Preparation for university throughout the lycee, with co-ordination between teachers and careers guidance staff, academics and university students; * Long-term development of a major technology stream bringing together teaching and research, with links to existing technology institutes; * More work experience.

The reforms would also encourage international exchanges, especially with European universities, make changes in the career structures of university teachers and researchers, and introduce plans to increase administrative independence for the universities.

Listening to M Bayrou's proposals was the industrialist and former minister Roger Fauroux. M Fauroux is also chairman of the referendum commission.

Two days later, it was his turn to present his report to M Juppe. The commission came up with 21 recommendations which stressed an urgent need to modernise education and particularly its administration.

Among proposals were a lighter workload for pupils, with greater emphasis on the three Rs and other basics and more concentration on vocational training and apprenticeships.

The commission wants new, short non-selective university courses, a bigger role for the technology institutes, and for management of higher education to be decentralised, with universities free to recruit their own teaching and research staff.

However, the report's reception was unenthusiastic, with two commission members dissociating themselves from its conclusions, and M Juppe and M Bayrou coordinating their views on which measures merited further study and which would be rejected.

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