FRANCE: New minister will continue reforms

Laurent Wauquiez has replaced Valérie Pécresse as France's Minister for Higher Education and Research in the government reshuffle announced by President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday, following the appointment of finance minister Christine Lagarde to the International Monetary Fund.

The handover ceremony between the two members of Sarkozy's right-wing government took place on Thursday at the ministry where Wauquiez, who takes over a year before presidential and general elections, promised he would continue the reforms started by his predecessor.

Wauquiez, 36, is the youngest member of the government. He has held several government posts, most recently as Minister for European Affairs from November 2010, and before that as a Junior Minister of Employment.

He has had wide experience of his brief as a consumer - he obtained a masters in history at the University of Paris-1, Panthéon-Sorbonne, and studied at three elite French institutions: the Ecole Normale Supérieure, the Paris Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po) and ENA, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration.

Pécresse, who has moved to become Budget Minister, led the higher education and research ministry from the start of Sarkozy's presidency in 2007.

Her period of office has seen a great shake-up of French higher education, notably with controversial legislation transferring powers from the state to universities, and the creation of an elite group of higher education and research institutions aimed at boosting France's place in international rankings.

Her University Freedoms and Responsibilities law, or LRU, which is progressively giving autonomy to universities, caused long and widespread protests and strikes among French lecturers, researchers and students.

But the reform has gone ahead, and so far nearly 90% of the country's universities have taken over control of their budgets, human resources including staff salaries and bonuses, and research strategies. They may take over ownership of university property, form foundations with businesses to generate extra funding, and are encouraged to create clusters with other higher education and research institutions.

The transfer to all universities will be completed in 2012.

Another major reform that has taken shape under Pécresse is Opération Campus, a EUR5 billion (US$7.2 billion) project set up to fulfill Sarkozy's ambition for at least 10 French centres of excellence of higher education and research to rank among the world's top universities.

Groupings of higher education and research institutions competed to be selected for inclusion in a dozen 'super campuses', which will receive extra funding to help make them internationally high-ranking, competitive institutions.

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