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Debate on future of higher education and research

A vast national consultation to determine the future of French higher education and research has culminated in 121 proposals, distilled from nearly 1,300 written contributions and 20,000 participants who attended more than 500 meetings and debates throughout the country.

The three themes of the Assises Nationales de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche, held in Paris on 26 and 27 November, were ensuring success for all students, especially those taking first degrees; giving a fresh boost to research, at all stages and in all fields, and ensuring French influence in Europe and internationally; and improving governance of institutions and organisation of the higher education and research system nationally and regionally.

The exercise was announced by Minister for Higher Education and Research Geneviève Fioraso after the socialist-led government took office in May. President François Hollande had promised priority for youth in his election campaign.

Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Nobel prize-winner in medicine and research director at the medical research institute Inserm, chaired the 20-member steering committee of the four-month Assises consultation. Following last week’s conference, an overview report will be published before Christmas, and legislation based on this is due to come into force before the end of June 2013.

The legislation will amend the 2007 Universities’ Freedoms and Responsibilities law (the LRU: Loi Relative aux Libertés et Responsabilités des Universités) and the research programme enacted by the previous right-wing government under President Nicolas Sarkozy. The new order will place emphasis on cooperation instead of competition between higher education and research institutions.

The conference was attended by about 700 participants including academics, researchers, education officials, students, heads of industry, and national and regional policy-makers.

It was opened by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who said: “We must make the raising of the level of education and progress of research a great lever for growth in the service of our country’s recovery. To my mind that is the major importance of these Assises.”

He said the government would respect Hollande’s commitment to a “more collegiate and democratic governance” of the higher education and research sector.

Fioraso said nearly 20,000 people nationwide had taken part in the preparatory meetings. Nearly 1,300 written contributions had been received and the steering committee had carried out more than 100 hearings. About 20 seminars and study days had been organised to focus on sensitive or specific subjects.

She recalled that the sector comprised 160,000 teachers, researchers and support workers, 2,400,000 students, and a budget of €26 billion, which would be increased by 2.2% in 2013 – rather than reduced by 3.5% as had been the previous government’s plan.

The objective was to attain 50% of an age group with a higher education qualification, compared to 30% now, said Fioraso. Measures were already being taken to combat failure. One example was a scheme to introduce lycée (upper secondary school) pupils to career opportunities so they could make a positive choice of their higher studies, not end up taking a programme by default. The government was committed to increasing the number of higher education posts by 1,000 annually for the next five years, and to improving students’ living conditions, notably through the provision of more housing and a better system of grants.

A new research agenda would fix strategic priorities through a simplified planning system, taking into account such matters as the role of agencies, evaluation and funding of programmes, she said. It would be consistent with the European Horizon 2020 research aims, and favour basic research.

The LRU and existing research legislation would be “thoroughly revised and replaced by a single framework law”, said Fioraso. The funding system would be revised in 2013 and this would iron out disparities between institutions, and between the social sciences and hard sciences. She hoped the autonomous institutions of the future would collaborate regionally to form mergers between universities, grandes écoles and research organisations.

At the conference the steering committee presented 121 proposals for debate by the three working groups.

Action for the success of all students: The proposals covered all aspects of students’ studies and living conditions, including reform of the licence (first degree/bachelor’s equivalent); increased support for vocational and technical students; teacher training; continuity between lycée and higher education, which would involve university lecturers teaching in the schools; development of digital resources; adapting teaching methods, such as favouring small groups over lecture halls; reform of the grants system; increased provision of student housing; improving the attractiveness of France for foreign students and lecturers; student employment; and cultural, sports and other student activities.

Giving a new ambition to research: The proposals concerned researchers’ careers, status and conditions of work; funding; research commissioning and the role of the National Research Agency; cooperation between public universities and research organisations, and private sector enterprises; and European and other international collaboration.

Redefining the national and regional organisation of higher education and research: The proposals concerned simplifying the current complex structure – including the multiplicity of diplomas, evaluation of higher education, research teams and institutions and the role of the evaluation agency AERES, and accreditation of institutions; governance of institutions including the constitution of governing boards and election of university presidents; collaboration and partnerships between national and cross-border institutions; conditions for dialogue between strategic authorities and academic decision-makers; funding; student support services; relations between the state, regions and institutions; democratisation of the Pôles de recherche et enseignement supérieur (PRES), regional clusters of universities, grandes écoles and research organisations, and reform of Idex (initiatives of excellence), two of the previous government’s projects that favoured competition between institutions.

Videos of all speeches given at the Assises are available here.

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