FRANCE: Students face sharp cost increases

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has cancelled an austerity measure that would have penalised parents who subsidise their student children's accommodation. He made the announcement after warnings from two leading organisations representing students' interests that students were facing sharp increases in costs both as they enrolled for the 2010-11 academic year and during the course of their studies.

On Monday the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France, Unef, and the Fédération des Associations Générales Etudiantes, Fage, made public the results of their inquiries into students' expenses as they enrolled for the new university year.

Unef and Fage respectively claimed that students faced increases of 2.5% and 3.3% in September, compared with a year ago.

Unef also estimated the rise in students' cost of living during the year would be 4.3% - three times the official annual inflation rate of 1.6% - while Fage calculated the cost for a student who was not receiving a grant would be EUR14,500 (US$18,400) during the university year.

Students in Paris and the surrounding Ile-de-France region would have to pay substantially more, with their costs at the start of the university year totalling EUR2,569.30 compared with EUR2,171.92 for those in the provinces, said Fage.

The two student organisations said government charges, which accounted for 20% of students' September budgets, were responsible for much of the increase. As well as university registration fees, which have risen by 1.8% for bachelors courses and 2.6% for masters and doctorates, expenses for students at the beginning of the academic year include social insurance (up 1%) and university canteen tickets (up 3.4%).

Among other costs are course books and equipment, food, season tickets for transport, telephone and internet subscriptions.

But housing registered the steepest increase, both organisations found. With a severe lack of publicly subsidised or dedicated accommodation, students must often resort to the private rented sector.

Unef said the cost for a student moving into housing in the Paris area had risen by 8.1% compared with a year ago, and by 5.6% in other regions.

Fage calculated housing represented more than 40% of a student's expenses at the start of the university year, taking into account guarantees, insurance, electricity and taxes as well as raised rents.

Aggravating the situation, said the organisations, was the government's decision under austerity measures in July that parents would no longer be allowed to claim both a housing benefit and a tax allowance for their student children, but would have to choose one or the other.

The two subsidies represent the only state assistance that many middle-class students, not all of them from well-off families, receive.

Unef and Fage both demanded that the government restore parents' rights to claim both benefits - a call heeded by Sarkozy on Thursday.

A statement from the Elysée Palace said the President had "decided not to alter, for young people who are part of their parents' household for tax purposes, the rules allocating personal housing benefits from which more than 650,000 students currently benefit".

Meanwhile, with extension of the university year from nine to 10 months, the nearly 566,000 students on government grants have become eligible for an extra month's payment.

But Valérie Pécresse, Minister for Higher Education and Research, said on Thursday the extra payment would be split in two, with only half the amount for the 10th month paid now, and the other half during the 2011-12 year.

Fage expressed relief on the part of students that the reform to withhold either the housing or the tax allowance - which would "directly hit the least well-off students and the middle classes" - had been withdrawn. But it condemned the decision that "while the promise of 10 months [grant] was announced nearly a year ago, only nine-and-a-half months will be paid".

In response to the claims by Unef and Fage about students' higher costs for the new university year, the Ministry for Higher Education and Research said the increase was only 1.64%, "about the same level as inflation".

The ministry said its calculations were based on "the costs of housing, stationery, food, transport, fuel, audiovisual equipment, telephone and telecommunications".

It added that "registration fees remain moderate and from now are payable in three instalments for the first time in all universities, to lessen the cost of the new year".