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Student anger turns into action

The promise of emergency help for France's poorest universities failed to prevent a rash of student strikes and demonstrations against lack of investment spreading through the country last week.

Francois Bayrou, the education minister, told parliament that his four-year plan would alleviate serious financial and staffing inequalities. Urgent measures would be introduced next year to help universities in direst need.

First steps will include investigating how the budget is allocated. Worst off are typically the newish, provincial establishments, some of which receive only half their theoretical entitlement, while the best off, which include Paris, might be awarded double.

In the early 1990s, the number of teaching posts in higher education rose sharply, and the budget kept pace with annual increases of between 9 and 12 per cent.

But, while student numbers continue to rise, since the election of a right-centre government in 1993, the higher education budget has only increased by about 5 per cent a year.

M Bayrou's announcement came as students in Rouen were completing their third week on strike. Other universities were also affected, particularly Metz.

In an interview in Le Monde, the minister admitted that the university had been treated unfairly. Rouen and some other universities have since been granted extra money and promised more staff.

However, this concession encouraged more universities to protest. Strikes were agreed or already under way last week at Nancy, Pau, Perpignan, Montpellier, Marne-la-Vallee and at Paris-VIII, in the poor suburb of St Denis.

Students at Orleans blocked motorway tolls, despite having been granted extra money and staff. In Metz, the deputy director of M Bayrou's private office was taken prisoner temporarily during negotiations Student unions named Tuesday this week as a day of action, a call supported by secondary teachers' unions warning against transferring lycee personnel to universities.

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