FRANCE: End to academic strikes?

The French government is to revise its controversial proposals for changing the status of academics in the nation's universities and has promised that no cuts in the number of teaching and assistants positions will be proposed in the 2010 and 2011 budgets. The moves, announced last Wednesday, received a cautious initial welcome by unions and although much still remains to be agreed, there is now a real chance of an end to the strikes and manifestations that have afflicted the higher education sector in recent weeks.

The widespread industrial action was in protest against government plans to amend a law governing the employment status of lecturers and researchers, to reform teacher training and to change the role of France's research organisations. Academic unions have also demanded restoration of staff positions axed in the 2009 budget.

Following a meeting last week attended by Higher Education and Research Minister Valérie Pécresse and the Conference of University Presidents, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said he had asked Pécresse to present new proposals regarding the status and employment conditions of lecturers by 15 March. The development was to be fully considered by the unions after University World News went to press.

The assurance that there will be no reduction in teaching jobs appears to cut across the policy that has operated since the election of French President Nicholas Sarkozy to cut one in every two positions when people retire. The assurance means that universities will be able to retain staff over the next three years, which had been in doubt until now.

As to the 900 positions the government had proposed cutting for 2009, this has been effectively reduced to 450 and, in another apparent concession to the unions, Fillon said the money saved - about EUR12 million - would be returned to the universities in cash.

In response to the grievance relating to proposed reforms to teacher training, the government is to set up a commission suivi which will include university representatives among its members.

Commenting on the overall package, Philippe Jacqué, an education specialist at Le Monde newspaper, told University World News that "some unions had wanted more but this is a good start". Even the largest union, representing a third of the professors, had said the government was "going in the right direction", Jacqué said.

John Mullen, a lecturer at University Paris 12, comments:

Although last Thursday's day of demonstrations was significantly smaller than previous days of action, this was partly because most Paris universities are on holiday.

As well, some unions did not really mobilise, preferring to save their strength for a big day of action next Thursday. In only one or two of the 70-odd universities affected by the strike are there significant moves to start teaching again.

The majority of strikers remain determined to get more concessions from the government, to such an extent that the biggest trade union, the SNESUP, refused even to attend a meeting called by the Minister last Friday.

The number of "alternative workshops" replacing university classes with discussions and films about social protest and democratic rights is still on the rise. For the moment, the movement is not slowing down, though it is impossible to say what will happen in a one or two weeks.

Every 10 days or so, a national strike committee holds a day-long meeting with several delegates from each striking university. The next will be held on Friday at my university and it is extremely unlikely that the strike will end before that.

The govenrment's latest proposals are viewed with considerable scepticism. Many lecturers believe the government's promise to "completely rewrite" the proposed decree on lecturer-researchers' working conditions remains vague. They would prefer the decree was simply withdrawn and use the time to consult all concerned on any reforms.

As for the proposed reform of teacher training, again setting up a review commission, including representatives of universities, is not a major move since the minimum demand is a moratorium of a year or two to allow consultation.

The demands of the lecturers might seem rather technical but the fundamental objection is to the idea of putting universities into competition one against another, controlling lecturer-researchers by setting up management structures and foremen in the universities, and depending more and more on private funding for research.

The government has preferred to give major tax breaks to companies that invest in research and development rather than find more funding for public sector research. We feel that if funding becomes even more private sector based, big companies will not pay researchers to write books on history, archeology, mathematics, literature and so on.

As for the autonomy of universities, we prefer the present collegial organisation. The government has promised to effectively double the salaries of university presidents when their universities become autonomous.

We believe the presidents will become businessmen and that academic independence will be under threat. In other countries such as Britain, the end result of such neo-liberal-inspired reforms has been the charging of high tuition fees for students: In France the fees are still "only" a couple of hundred euros a year whereas in Britain they are EUR3,000 and this has led to a reduction in the number of young people from poorer families going to university.

We are defending a whole idea of what a university can be as a public service. It has to be said that a national strike of this type has never been called before by university lecturers in France.