FRANCE: More autonomous universities

A second group of French universities became autonomous this month, bringing to 51 the number of institutions acquiring more freedom to manage their own affairs. The government's determination to encourage a 'results-based culture' in the sector is reflected in new funding criteria that take graduate employment rates and research assessments into account.

The first 18 universities achieved autonomy a year ago under the 2007 Universities Freedom and Responsibilities law, the LRU. Now a further 33, accounting for 900,000 students and 65,400 employees, have taken up their new powers. The remaining 32 are scheduled to follow suit by 1 January 2012.

Under the law, university presidents assume a greater role as the institutions take on new responsibilities such as managing global budgets, recruiting academic and research staff and fixing their pay and awarding bonuses, deciding research strategies, owning university buildings. They may create foundations in partnership with businesses to generate extra funding, and are encouraged to form clusters with other higher education institutions and research organisations.

Governing boards have been slimmed down to a maximum of 30 members, against 60 previously, with an increased proportion of representatives from outside the university.

Under the LRU the Ministry of Higher Education and Research has made changes to its funding criteria, "deliberately to make universities enter a results-based culture". From now, 20% of resources will be allocated depending on institutions' educational and research performance, instead of 3% previously.

Assessment of research laboratories and the success rate of graduate employment will also be taken into account for "equitable financing of the universities on the basis of the reality of their activity".

The remaining 80% of funding will be distributed according to "the number of students present in examinations, and no longer the number enrolled"; and, for research, the number of lecturer-researchers who have published research.

Such changes have caused anxiety among academic, research and student unions, which fear the LRU will open the way to privatisation of the universities and lead to competition between them.