FRANCE: Academics strike over job status

Universities throughout France are set to close tomorrow, Monday 2 February, with lecturers starting an unlimited strike unless the government withdraws proposals to change their statute of employment. President Nicolas Sarkozy enraged researchers further by describing the national system of research as "disastrous".

The government's Universities' Freedoms and Responsibilities Law (LRU) transfers control over staff recruitment, salaries and tenure to university managements (see "Universities begin move to autonomy", University World News, 11 January 2009). Under the legislation a contentious decree amends the 1984 law that fixed the statutory conditions covering employment of university personnel, giving university presidents the right in future to "adjust" their conditions of service.

University professors, lecturers and researchers have united across political divides to oppose the new decree. A national coordinating group of representatives from 46 universities and seven union federations, together with action groups and scholarly societies, met in Paris last month and voted for a "total and unlimited strike".

Other grievances include cuts in the number of university posts this year and plans to reform training of schoolteachers. Protests were already taking place in a number of universities, with emergency staff meetings and votes to strike and withhold students' reports.

The lecturers' strike follows a nationwide stoppage by public and some private sector workers last Thursday that caused transport chaos, closed banks and schools and led to public services unable to meet the demand. The country's major unions called the strike in protest against President Sarkozy's handling of the economic crisis.

Last week, the permanent conference of the National Council of Universities (CNU) also overwhelmingly rejected the new decree. The council is a consultative and decision-making body composed of elected and appointed academics whose brief is to advise and give rulings on matters concerning the qualifications, recruitment and careers of university personnel.

In a statement, the council said the proposed decree threatened the national statute covering teachers and researchers. It would create conditions for arbitrary local decisions which risked accentuating inequalities between staff, courses and institutions "to the detriment of the interests of science and students".

The CNU said the decree would reduce academic autonomy compared with staff in administration "thus casting doubt on academic freedom and scientific independence".

In response to the protests, Valérie Pécresse, Minister for Higher Education and Research, said the LRU law gave universities the autonomy they had demanded. Writing in Libération, Pécresse said young lecturers would be better paid and their career paths made more rapid while academics would have more freedom to prepare their education and research projects.

But she said a consistent policy meant the "right to recruit without bureaucratic hold-ups and, for all teachers in the university, a right to exercise greater initiative, open to the social, economic and cultural stakes of today's world".

Academics must be able to make the most of their diverse skills and be recognised for each of them, said Pécresse: "It is to take account of this diversity that the government has decided to reform the decree which governs the status of university teachers."

Those who made more effort in their work could benefit from significant responsibility bonuses as well as recognition for the service given to the university by new promotion opportunities, she said.

Pécresse met delegations of academics last week to discuss the decree and give guarantees. But online publication Educpros quoted a member of her office as saying "its withdrawal is not in question. Without this order, there is no autonomy".

President Sarkozy also infuriated researchers during the official launch of a committee of inquiry into future national strategies for research and innovation, due to report in the spring. In a forceful speech, he stressed the need to modernise France's system of research whose present state he described as a "disastrous organisation" that was structurally too complicated and wasted resources.

His aim was to achieve "strong universities in partnership with modernised research organisations" which would play the role of funding agencies". Sarkozy said he intended to promote relations between public and private research with universities "open to industrial partnerships". But extra funding would not come without reforms and evaluation, he said.

Research organisations reacted angrily. Snesup, the majority union representing researchers, said the President's speech "manifested an ignorance or distrust for the work of tens of thousands of researchers and university teachers who contribute to our country in all fields of knowledge and advancement, with an influence internationally recognised".

The union particularly condemned the restructuring of the National Centre of Scientific Research which assumes a new funding responsibility.

Action group Sauvons-la-Recherche accused Sarkozy of "announcing the programmed disappearance of a system of research which has offered the country a great part of its industrial successes".

* Read President Sarkozy's speech here.