FRANCE: Students charged illegal fees, union finds

A third of French universities are "illegally" charging students for services that should be covered by statutory fees, claims Unef, France's biggest student union. And students have criticised the new Minister for Higher Education and Research, Laurent Wauquiez (pictured), for his first ministerial decision - to raise their living costs.

In its seventh annual inquiry into university charges, Frais d'inscription illégaux: le palmarès 2011 des universités hors-la-loi, Unef, the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France, found that 28 universities were imposing higher charges than legally sanctioned.

The Ministry for Higher Education and Research fixes university enrolment fees each year, and universities are not permitted to make compulsory additions. Any extras must be optional and clearly specified - such as language courses for foreign students.

Enrolment fees for the 2011-12 university year, which are among the lowest in Europe, are EUR177 (US$250) for a licence (three-year bachelors equivalent), EUR245 for a masters and EUR372 for a doctorate.

Legislation specifies that extra charges must be optional and specified clearly at the time students enrol. After legal action, including cases brought by Unef, a 2008 ministry circular reminded institutions of the rules.

But Unef's latest inquiry found that 34% of universities were charging students for various educational services such as hiring part-time lecturers, or for enrolment on professionally geared courses, use of sports facilities, access to computers, or even parking.

While some were charging only a few extra euro, Unef said seven universities were imposing, for some courses, "particularly high" supplementary fees of more than EUR400 that were illegal or "at the limit of legality".

Top of the league was the University of Aix-Marseille-3 Paul-Cezanne, which is charging an extra EUR4,555 for the second year of eight masters courses at its Institute of Business Administration (IAE). It was followed by the IAE of the University Toulouse-1 Capitole, at EUR2,755, and the University of Pau charging EUR2,255 extra for a course for foreign students.

Unef claimed the IAEs - which are public business schools integrated into universities, and account for a fifth of the miscreants - were "on the verge of illegal practice regarding enrolment fees". It condemned their "competition with private business schools", and said the institutes had "public service obligations from which they could not be exempted for 'marketing' reasons".

For the first time Unef's inquiry also covered grandes écoles, the selective, professionally-oriented higher education institutions. It found a dozen schools were charging extra, headed by Centrale Nantes which compulsorily added between EUR63 and EUR5,763 to seven of its masters courses.

The union called on the new minister, Laurent Wauquiez, to clamp down on over-charging institutions by "requiring all the universities concerned to abolish totally the illegal charges, and immediate reimbursement of payments so far made by students".

But Wauquiez has not endeared himself to students with his first decision as minister to raise their living costs from the new academic year. This included overriding the state student support organisation, the Centre National des Oeuvres Universitaires et Scolaires (Cnous), which had advised against increasing the price of university restaurant meals.

While the cost of a bouffe (snack) has risen by only five centimes, to EUR3.05, in an open letter to the minister the student federation Fage, Fédération des Associations Générales Étudiantes, pointed out that the price had increased by 22% since 2002.

Wauquiez also approved university enrolment fee increases of 1.72% for licence courses, 4.7% for masters and 3.6% for doctorates, higher rises than previous years, said Fage. The compulsory student social security charges have risen by EUR3, to EUR203, "passing the symbolic bar of EUR200", said the federation.

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