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Relaunch of huge Operation Campus funding plan

Five years after former president Nicolas Sarkozy announced Operation Campus, a major initiative aimed at making France a global higher education leader, “no stone has been laid, no building permit registered”, said Geneviève Fioraso, minister for higher education and research, as she relaunched the project last Monday.

The resuscitated project has had a rule change, abandoning private sector funding.

Operation Campus, announced by Sarkozy in November 2007, is an ambitious construction programme devoting increased public investment to flagship institutions.

Pôles de recherche et enseignement supérieur (PRES), regional clusters of universities, grandes écoles and research organisations competed for extra funding totalling over €5 billion (US$6.5 billion).

A dozen PRES* were eventually selected, destined to become internationally competitive centres of excellence. Sarkozy’s aim was to overcome France’s consistently poor showing in global rankings, with two French universities placed among the leading 20 international institutions by 2012, and 10 in the top 100.

The original plan was to set up public-private partnerships (PPPs) under which private companies would renovate, build and maintain the privileged campuses for 20 to 30 years, with the state paying them ‘rent’.

But, as Fioraso remarked, so far no building under the plan has taken place. “Five years after it was announced, more than four years after the designation of the sites of the Campus plan, no stone has been laid, no building permit registered,” she said.

Only €188 million of the €5 billion had been spent so far.

After she became minister in June, following election of the socialist-led government, she ordered an urgent inquiry under state councillor Roland Peylet into the programme’s lack of progress and to recommend a way forward.

Fioraso and Peylet presented the report together in Paris on 29 October.

The inquiry, based on visits to 19 sites, found the plan had become bogged down largely because of the complexity of the PPP procedures, and that the regional authorities, which were contributing more than €1 billion to the plan, had become marginalised, adding to complications.

Fioraso confirmed that Operation Campus would continue, but in line with the report’s recommendations the private sector would no longer be involved except where PPP agreements had already been signed or were on the point of completion.

For the majority of campuses the report recommended the state should “reaffirm its strategic responsibility for university construction”, using funding such as public service contracts.

The plan would be carried out “without dogmatism”, said Fioraso. “It is all the more important that it concerns the sectors that are very competitive, such as research and innovation, and that it makes provision for 13,500 new student housing units.”

Also last week, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault declared government support for the 23-partner Campus Paris-Saclay, the most ambitious Operation Campus cluster which has now become part of the ‘Grand Paris’ urban development plan.

Concluding the 7th Forum of Research and Innovation in Paris, Ayrault confirmed funding of €1 billion for construction to unite the universities, grandes écoles and research organisations comprising Paris-Saclay; plus €850 million under Operation Campus; and an extra €1 billion under the Investments of the Future Idex (Initiatives of Excellence) programme.

Due for completion in 2014, Paris-Saclay would be a “merger remarkable for its size and quality” with “more than 10,000 researchers and academics, nearly 50,000 students, including 30,000 studying for masters and doctorates”, said Ayrault.

* The institutions selected for Operation Campus are in Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lyon, Montpellier, Strasbourg, Toulouse, Aix-Marseille, Paris-Aubervilliers, Paris-Saclay (now part of the ‘Grand Paris’ urban development plan), Inner Paris, Lille and Lorraine.

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