FRANCE: More universities gain autonomy

French higher education starts 2011 with a new team at the head of the university presidents conference and the third wave of newly autonomous universities. Meanwhile, the selective grandes écoles are adopting new rules designed to make entry more accessible to less privileged young people.

In December, the Conférence des Présidents d'Université elected its new leaders to represent the organisation for the next two years. Louis Vogel (pictured), President of the University of Paris-2, Panthéon-Assas, is the new CPU president with vice presidents Yvon Berland of the University of the Méditerranée-Aix-Marseille-2 and Anne Fraïsse, of the University Paul-Valéry Montpellier-3.

They took over as, on 1 January, a third batch of 22 universities* raised to 73 those that have gained more freedom to manage their own affairs under the 2007 Universities Freedom and Responsibilities law, or LRU. Altogether the group now represents nearly 90% of France's universities and, under the reform, the rest must switch to autonomous status by August 2012.

According to the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, more than 1.3 million students are now studying in the 73 autonomous universities.

The LRU hands control from the state to the universities for matters such as management of budgets and human resources, including staff salaries and bonuses, and deciding research strategies. Universities may form foundations with businesses to generate extra funding and are encouraged to create clusters with other higher education and research institutions.

Another stage of the reform is devolution of property ownership from the state to the universities - the first four or five having already started the transfer process. When this is finalised, universities will be able to renovate their buildings to suit their needs, and have power to sell them and keep the proceeds.

"Autonomy has changed the universities' way of thinking," Vogel is reported as saying. "From now on they must take themselves in hand and adopt their own strategies but the state absolutely has to continue its financial efforts and even increase them. If not, we won't be able to take on autonomy. The situation has certainly got better but there is an enormous amount to catch up."

A year ago, representatives of the 'other' system of French higher education - the selective, professionally oriented grandes écoles - were locked in stormy negotiations with Higher Education Minister Valérie Pécresse who wanted to bring the university and grande école systems closer.

Pécresse had asked the schools, through the Conférence des Grandes Ecoles, or CGE, which represents this diverse group of mostly independent higher education institutions, to widen their intake to include students from less privileged backgrounds.

Despite the schools'meritocratic ethos, their students gain places through highly competitive examinations and are predominantly children of socially advantaged parents - senior managers, company executives, professionals, often alumni of the same schools. They cater for about one in 10 higher education students and state spending is about 50% higher for each than for a university student.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who did not himself attend a grande école, had expressed disapproval of the skewed intake: "A country that trains its elites from only 10% of the population is depriving itself of the intelligence of 90% of its young people," Sarkozy said.

So it became government policy for the schools to widen their social mix and include more students from less privileged backgrounds. During negotiations with Pécresse the CGE accused the government of imposing 'quotas' it implied would lower standards. But it signed an agreement fixing an 'objective' for each school to recruit 30% of students receiving state grants, compared with the usual 10-15%.

Last month, Pierre Tapie, President of the CGE, launched a White Paper on the Social Opening of the Grandes Ecoles which sets out the schools' progress during the past three years, and proposals for the future, to widen access to students of greater social diversity, including alternative methods of recruitment to the competitive entrance examinations.

In response to this "encouraging inventory" Pécresse has asked the CGE to provide by February "concrete" proposals from each school to widen social access, such as making entrance examinations more "impartial" and developing alternative entry routes, such as for university graduates or education combined with workplace training.

She also reminded them of the president's aim for the schools to achieve an intake of 30% of students in receipt of government grants.

*The 22 newly autonomous universities are: Amiens, Arras, Bordeaux-3, Bordeaux-4, Caen, Chambéry, Evry, Grenoble-2, Le Havre, Le Mans, Lille-1, Nancy-2, Nîmes, Nouvelle-Calédonie, Orléans, Paris-1, Paris-2, Paris-3, Paris-4, Paris-9, Reims, Rouen, Toulouse-2. Eight other higher education institutions that also became autonomous on 1 January are: Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan, Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Ingénieurs de Bourges, Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Chimie de Montpellier, Ecole Centrale de Nantes, Ecole Centrale de Paris, Ecole Nationale d'Ingénieurs de Tarbes, Institut National des Sciences Appliquées de Rouen, Chimie Paris Tech.