FRANCE: Government fast-tracks autonomy law

Less than three months after the election in May of Nicolas Sarkozy, France's new President, the French parliament voted to give universities more autonomy despite misgivings voiced by unions representing academics and researchers.

The reform took effect immediately and gives universities power over finance, human resources and buildings – until now all areas under strict state control. University presidents will enjoy greater authority and governing boards will be reduced in size, with more weight given to members from outside the academic community.

The last reorganisation of France's universities took place following student upheavals in May 1968. These led to major restructuring and democratisation of the system that was completed by the 1984 Savary law.

University presidents are chosen by three elected committees composed of staff, students and outside bodies such as regional authorities and businesses, the decision-making and executive conseil d'administration (CA), the scientific committee, and the studies and university life committee.

France's 85 universities cater for 1.4 million students out of the 2.3 million enrolled in higher education. Entry is non-selective, open to all who pass the school-leaving baccalauréat examination and fees are minimal. As a consequence, faculties are over-crowded and the first-year failure rate is 50%. Universities are also chronically under-funded.

Sarkozy stressed that university reform was a priority during his election campaign, when he spelled out his aims in line with his determination for France to reduce state intervention and adopt a regime encouraging initiative and enterprise. He promised to increase public spending on universities by 40% by 2012 – an extra €15 billion (US$20.4 billion).

To fast-track his legislative schedule, Sarkozy made several concessions in June after negotiations between Valérie Pécresse, the Minister for Higher Education and Research, and university representatives ran into difficulties. The reform became law on 1 August, just over six weeks after the President's conservative UMP party won the general election.

Under the reform, elected members of the university's governing board, the CA, will choose a president for four years, renewable once (instead of one term of five years). The CA will consist of between 20 and 30 members (compared with up to 60 previously) – eight to 14 representing teaching and research staff, seven or eight ‘outsiders’, three to five students, and two or three technical and administrative workers.

Each university will have up to five years to introduce its increased powers over budgets, staff recruitment and pay, creation of posts and courses, and ownership of property and buildings.

But while the Conference of University Presidents welcomed the changes,
unions have expressed misgivings and protested that the legislation was adopted without adequate consultation.

Opponents of the reform believe it breaches the democratic public service ethos embodied in French university statutes. There are objections that university presidents will become too powerful, with teachers' and researchers' unions warning the law will “open the door to patronage” and to economic and political pressures liable to weaken academics' intellectual and professional freedom.