Few fans of higher education overhaul

3rd February 1995 at 00:00
Students and university teachers have reacted angrily to proposals for a "true cultural revolution" in higher education, which would lead to a radical dismantling of the traditionally centralised national system, increase enrolment fees and reform student grant and aid schemes.

The recommendations are set out in a report commissioned in October by Francois Fillon, the higher education minister, and are aimed at helping universities to overcome the overcrowding- there are now more than two million students in higher education - without sacrificing excellence.

In order to stick to the republican principle of equal opportunities, the report says, universities need to adapt to new circumstances. Higher education would have to "carry out a true cultural revolution, made necessary by pressure and demands from society".

With training requirements for the future becoming increasingly diverse, says the report, the state can no longer offer a uniform, centralised higher education service.

It calls for greater independence for the universities themselves and a decentralised system based upon the American or German models. Local government would be given a greater decision-making role in return for contributing to the colleges which would also be expected to make links with local businesses and industries. And the report suggests they should offer employees' training courses to raise extra money, says the report.

To overcome the difficulties faced by the flood of new students enrolling during the present period of rapid university expansion, and to try and bring down their failure rate, the commission proposes that the local authorities should take part in setting up new, regional university-level institutes. These would specialise in professional and vocational training, with courses including apprenticeships or workplace experience, and would lead to a state-recognised technical qualification.

Other suggestions include a continuous academic year, with new students starting in January or February.

Of more pressing concern to students are proposals to reform the post-war social aid system, which accounts for a quarter of the total education budget of FFr 42 billion (Pounds 5.25bn).

This, says the commission, no longer meets the objectives with students from wealthier families often gaining at the expense of poorer ones. It urges a review and redistribution of the benefits and loans now available.

The commission's free-market proposals, if accepted, will dismay the guardians of France's national system of higher education and university teachers' and students' representatives, worried at the possible effects of unbridled liberalism were quick to react.

The national union of higher education, SNESUP-FSU, condemned the report as a "criminal blow against public service and its guarantees".

The Federation of National Education called for support for a mass demonstration next week that had already been called about other grievances.

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