Jane Marshall reports as rolls and problems increase for the universities The government has taken the first steps towards introducing a charter of students' rights as the university year opens amid controversy over massive overcrowding and financial uncertainty.
Concern over unsafe buildings and the opening of a private, business-orientated college are also contributing to discontent on campuses.
There are more students in the higher education system than ever before thanks to record numbers of school-leavers passing their baccalaureat. This year's intake is 2.2 million - almost 18,000 up on last year. A statut de l'etudiant - or framework setting out students' rights and the universities' role - therefore seems timely.
President Jacques Chirac promised such a charter in his election campaign and prime minister Alain Juppe confirmed that it was a priority during a television interview in August. But the task of organising it has been shunted on to education minister Francois Bayrou and his secretary for higher education, Jean de Boishue, who have indicated to university heads that the issue was much more complicated than had been originally foreseen.
Rather than acting quickly and imposing measures from above, M Bayrou is prepared to open a "period of wide-ranging dialogue" on the charter - which risks further delay.
During a parliamentary debate last week, M Bayrou said he was pleasantly surprised that all the student unions had supported this step.
The minister's consultation will be separate from the work of the government's referendum commission (TES, September 22), which is also currently investigating the universities.
Threatening to upset the rare harmony was an amendment proposed by the parliamentary rapporteur-general for the budget, Philippe Auberger, to cut back a housing allowance paid to the unemployed, for which some students areeligible.
Some 700,000 students claimed the allowance last year at a cost of FFr 6.5 billion (Pounds 860 million). Strong opposition by students, M Bayrou, M de Boishue and the Conference of University Presidents eventually resulted in the proposal being withdrawn.
There were local protests at the University of Haute-Normandie in Rouen last week, where the governing council decided not to open the science faculty - due to receive 5,600 students - because of a severe financial deficit. Striking students demanded FFr 12 million which they claimed the government owed the faculty.
M Bayrou announced in parliament that, in addition to FFr 2m of special aid, he was setting up an inquiry into management problems at Rouen.
Another blow to a smooth return was the finding in a ministry survey that, on top of the endemic problem of overcrowding in many French universities, about 450 buildings are unsafe, with 100 of them - 2 per cent of the total - constituting a grave security risk. An estimated FFr 4.5bn is needed to bring them all up to standard.
Meanwhile, the independent university-centre Leonard-de-Vinci has opened, a year later than originally planned. But the start of the first academic year at the controversial college, which has received more than FFr 1bn of public money, was not totally peaceful. Students from the nearby state university at Nanterre staged a "symbolic occupation".
Leonard-de-Vinci is the brainchild of former interior minister Charles Pasqua, right-wing neo-Gaullist president of the council of the richest departement in Paris, Hauts-de-Seine. He proclaimed his project in 1991 as a "revolutionary alternative to the sclerotic public university system" which would respond to the needs of business and which companies would participate in and financially sponsor.
Since then, the "fac Pasqua", as its critics call it, has provoked fury from teachers' unions and students in state higher education who have protested against public money being spent on private education. The local council has spent FFr 1.3bn on construction and contributed FFr 50m towards the first year's running costs. Student fees are FFr 26,000 a year.
So far, only a few hundred students have enrolled, though about 1,000 are expected in a few months' time, rising to 5,000 in five years.
Barely a couple of kilometres from the college's ultra-modern building in the high-rise business district of La Defense, disgruntled students at the overcrowded, under-funded University of Paris-X in Nanterre are proposing that the fac Pasqua should be taken over by the state and amalgamated with their establishment. This year, 35,000 Nanterre students are crammed into buildings intended for half that number.
Leonard-de-Vinci has 37,000 square metres of space for its potential 5, 000 students, compared with Nanterre's 17,000 square metres.
The grandiose plans of the college are already showing signs of deflation. Its training and diplomas are not recognised by the state, and legally it may not claim to be a university as such. Support from business is less generous than had been envisaged.
Fewer firms than expected have paid their FFr 500,000 "subscription" (those who have include the college's builders and cable suppliers), while others, including Renault, IBM and Total, have reduced their contributions or pulled out.