FRANCE: Third wave of autonomous universities

Nearly 90% of French universities will be autonomous from next January when another 24 institutions will take over management of their own affairs under the 2007 Libertés et Responsibilités des Universités (Universities' Freedoms and Responsibilities) law.

This third batch, announced this month by Minister of Higher Education and Research Valérie Pécresse (picture), will bring to 75 those universities taking control of responsibilities such as budgets, recruiting academic staff, salaries and bonuses, ownership of buildings and research strategies. They may also create foundations in partnership with companies to generate extra funding.

The first 18 universities became autonomous in January 2008, followed a year later by a second wave of 33.

The remaining nine universities must follow suit by 2012 under the reform introduced by President Nicolas Sarkozy to reduce state intervention and transform the higher education and research system to improve France's performance in international rankings.

From January, the 75 autonomous universities will between them be in charge of budgets totalling EUR7 billion (US$9 billion), more than 1,300,000 students and nearly 126,000 employees.

The universities have been encouraged to form clusters with other higher education and research institutions to pool resources, offer joint programmes and collaborate in research. So far, 17 higher education and research clusters, or PRES (pôles de recherche et d'enseignement supérieur), have been established.

The government has also designated a dozen federations of universities, grandes écoles and research organisations under its Opération Campus; while nine others were awarded the lesser status of 'promising and innovative campuses'.

Selected through competitive bids, these groupings have been awarded billions of euros in extra funding with the aim of fulfilling Sarkozy's desire for at least 10 French centres of higher education and research excellence to be ranked among the world's top institutions by 2012.