FRANCE: Universities overcharging, claims union

A third of French universities are charging students illegal fees, France's biggest students' union has claimed. Unef, the Union nationale des étudiants de France, found 26 out of 83 universities were fixing fees higher than those laid down by law, and two more were on the borderline of legality.

University enrolment fees for national degree courses are fixed annually by decree of the Ministry for Higher Education and Research, and universities are not allowed to add compulsory supplementary charges. Any extras must be optional for students and correspond to clearly identified services not provided in universities' stipulated obligations.

Fees for the 2010-11 academic year are EUR174 (US$228) for a licence (bachelor equivalent), EUR237 for a masters and EUR359 for a doctorate, an average increase of 2.1% over last year. Students' social security charges are added to these.

This is Unef's sixth annual investigation into illegal overcharging of university fees, a practice the union said notably concerned a "little club of universities which have been condemned by the law in the past and figure again this year in the rankings for illegal practices and bad practices".

It found seven universities were continuing illegally to charge students mandatory supplementary enrolment fees - Nancy 1 and 2, Nice, Perpignan, Compiègne, Lille 1 and Besançon - though this year such miscreants represented only 18% of universities compared with nearly 30% in 2009, said Unef.

The union identified new ways universities were using to get round the law. Three - Toulouse 1, Strasbourg and Caen - were compulsorily coupling national degree courses (for which the state fixes the fees) with their own 'university diploma' courses for which they could charge more.

The universities of Aix-Marseille 3, Lyon 3 and Bordeaux 4 were on the limit of legality by offering 'inhouse' masters courses containing 'state' educational content such as methodology and preparation for professional employment, said Unef.

The most widely used practice consisted of what the union described as "dubious educational services". Nine universities were charging for services that should have been included in national degree courses.

Unef noted that while fewer universities than before were overcharging small amounts - only eight this year, compared with 17 in 2007 - the number illegally charging more than EUR400 was increasing: six in 2007, but 10 this year.

As well as past offenders such as Aix-Marseille 3, overcharging by up to EUR5,990, Grenoble 2 (EUR1,900), Chambéry (EUR2,000), Bordeaux 4 (EUR970) and Lyon 3 (EUR914), they included new ones - Pau (EUR3,750) and Paris 1 (EUR750).

Unef called on Valérie Pécresse, Minister for Higher Education and Research, to insist on universities obeying the law. Students who had been overcharged should be reimbursed immediately, and offending institutions should be taken to court, said the union.

The Ministry for Higher Education and Research said the minister took the matter seriously and, as in previous years, she had sent instructions to university rectors to respect the law. The ministry was checking Unef's claims.

The body representing university presidents, the Conférence des Présidents d'Université, called on its members to respect the national regulations, and urged students to "contact the presidents of the universities concerned within the framework of normal university democracy". It noted the number of institutions and practices condemned by Unef had fallen this year.