FRANCE: Academic and student anger grows

The nation's universities continued to be disrupted by strikes and protests against proposed teacher training reforms last week, while university presidents called for a year's delay in introducing the changes to allow time for reflection and consultation.

Lecturers, researchers and students turned out in force on Thursday, joining schoolteachers and other workers from the public and private sectors, in a day's general strike in which up to a million and a half demonstrators marched in Paris and other towns nationwide against the government's handling of the economy.

Lecturers voted in January for a "total and unlimited" strike with effect from 2 February. Since then the movement has grown, with universities closed or blocked, while academics stage protest actions such as workshops and lectures in public places, or refuse to carry out administrative duties (see "United in struggle against reforms" by striking students at Bordeaux-3 University in the accompanying story).

The government has made concessions on some of its proposals, rewriting a decree that proposed changing academics' conditions of employment and restoring jobs it had intended cutting. Now, as the strike starts its seventh week, teacher-training reforms remain the protesters' chief grievance.

Last year, Education Minister Xavier Darcos and Minister for Higher Education and Research Valérie Pécresse announced their 'masterisation' plan for teacher training - introduction of a master's degree in education for all new schoolteachers, raising the minimum qualification from bachelor's (three years' higher education) to master's (five years') level, in line with the European Union's Lisbon strategy.

The network of former teacher-training colleges has been subsumed into the universities which, under the reform, assume responsibility for organising the courses leading to the competitive examination that trainees must pass to become fully qualified teachers.

The reform was due to start in September with candidates originally scheduled to sit the examination in 2010. Ministers have now extended the reform by a year, with candidates taking the examination in 2011 and the extra year having a "provisional character", according to the ministers' joint statement.

But opposition to the reform continues, with objections including the speed of its introduction, abolition of the year's (paid) teaching practice, alleged deterioration of new teachers' status and reduction of academic content in the training. Opponents have demanded a year's postponement and an opening of negotiations.

University presidents have also called for a delay. In a statement last week they said the reform could only be introduced from the academic year 2010-2011, and the competitive examination in 2011.

"The disagreements expressed and the contradictions between the participants, especially for the secondary level, are too numerous to allow time for reflection before the reform is launched," their statement said.

They recommended the "rapid installation of a national consultation and monitoring commission to carry out this reflection".

Meanwhile, the universities' strike committee has called the next national day of demonstrations for next Tuesday, 24 March.

*The accompanying report was filed by a group of students at Bordeaux 3 University who are holding an occupation there.