FRANCE: Lecturers strike despite increased funding

As Valérie Pécresse, Minister for Higher Education and Research, was last week announcing a EUR731 million economic boost to the sector, lecturers at universities throughout France were intensifying strike action against a planned change to the statute governing their employment.

The "national coordination of higher education and research" consisting of unions and other associations representing protesting academics had called for the strike to start last Monday (Academics strike over job status, University World News, 1 February 2009).

That afternoon nearly 400 academics, including delegates mandated by their universities, attended a meeting at the Sorbonne in Paris where a vote confirmed the call for "an unlimited and general strike".

During the week, staff at universities throughout the country organised general meetings to vote on protest action against Pécresse's proposals to make their conditions of work more "flexible".

The principal lecturers' union Snesup said nearly all universities were affected to some degree, and estimated that "nearly one lecturer in two" was participating in strike action. Many university teachers were reported to be refusing to sit on examination boards or communicate students' results.

As well as withdrawal of the decree, protesters demanded the government abandon plans to reform teacher training, immediately suspend planned cuts in lecturer posts and launch a long-term recruitment plan, and defend the system of public research and its personnel "odiously denigrated and demolished by the President of the Republic."

President Nicolas Sarkozy had announced plans to reform the "disastrous" system of research in January . Pécresse has ruled out withdrawing the contentious decree, which she said would be a "reversal" for all academics.

But she promised to draw up in consultation with all interested parties a "charter of correct application" and called on university presidents to give guarantees to reassure those who were worried about possible abuse following the changes.

In their turn, the Conference of University Presidents issued a statement* with the provocative title 'Must one be afraid of university presidents?' which supported Pécresse, answering the principal objections put forward by the protesting academics.

Students also joined the protest, with their majority union, Unef, calling on its supporters to take part in demonstrations scheduled for last week and this week. Thousands of students attended general meetings at their universities to vote on action.

Unef said that, faced with the crisis, students expected the government to protect young people from rising unemployment which particularly hit the 18-to-25-year olds. "The government must take notice of the deep discontent which is being expressed in the universities, and respond to it quickly," it said.

As well as withdrawal of the lecturers' decree which Unef claimed would "reinforce inequalities" between institutions, its demands included abandonment of government reforms for university funding on the basis of their 'performance' which it said would penalise those with students most in difficulty, and restoration of jobs due to be axed in the next academic year.

Pécresse denied lecturers' jobs were being cut "globally" but said there would be "redeployment" between institutions. "There are universities that will lose posts, but there are universities that will gain posts," she said.

She also addressed the question of students' living conditions during a press conference where she gave details of a EUR731 million plan for higher education and research**, part of a government funding boost to the economy announced by Sarkozy in December and totalling EUR26.5 billion.

Among the extra funding measures, described by Pécresse as "the spearhead for our economic recovery", were:

o EUR398 million for construction, renovation and equipping of university buildings.
o EUR47 million for student housing and canteens, to include rehabilitation of properties providing 2,000 extra student bedsits.
o EUR286 million for research, including speeding up the financing of major projects such as the Soleil synchrotron, and plans for sectors including nanosciences and the environment.
o EUR 3.8 billion over three years for funding for private sector research, with over 90% earmarked for small and medium companies.

But it remains to be seen if the measures will be enough to lessen the anger now widespread in the universities.

* Read the Conference of University Presidents' statement here:

**Details of the new higher education and research funding here: