FRANCE: Student living costs 'rising sharply'

Students' living costs for the new academic year have risen by more than 4% compared with 2010-11, twice the rate of inflation, France's two biggest student organisations claim. But Laurent Wauquiez (pictured), Minister for Higher Education and Research, said the increases were "without doubt" among the lowest for the last five years.

The leading student union Unef (Union nationale des étudiants de France) and Fage (Fédération des associations générales étudiantes), the second-biggest, last week released their annual surveys of students' costs of living.

Unef calculated the rise since last year at 4.1%, and Fage at 4.2% - compared with France's inflation rate of 2.1%.

These estimates are higher than those of a year ago, when the two organisations calculated students' costs had risen by between 2.5% and 3.3% compared with 2009-10.

Fage has estimated the cost of the 2011-12 year at EUR2,657 (US$3,840) for a student living in Paris and the surrounding Ile-de-France region, and EUR2,265 in the provinces.

Both organisations found housing was by far the greatest expense, taking up to half a student's budget. Unef said private rents - the sector most students living away from home rely on - in and around Paris had risen by 8.9%, and 1.9% in the provinces.

Fage, using data from OVE, the Observatory of Student Life, put the rise in private rents at 7.7% in the Ile-de-France.

Other inflationary factors cited by Unef and Fage are increases in unavoidable costs such as fees, social insurance, subsidised meals and transport.

Annual university enrolment fees are rising to EUR177 for a licence (bachelor's equivalent) course, up from EUR174 last year, EUR245 for a masters (EUR237 last year) and EUR372 for a doctorate (EUR359 last year) - an average increase of 3.1%, said Unef.

Fage said the increased living costs largely explained why the proportion of working-class young people in higher education had, according to OVE's figures, fallen from 36% in 2006 to 31% in 2010.

Measures demanded by Unef and Fage include greater financial aid for more students, especially at the start of the university year, and a freeze on fees and other statutory charges.

Both called for introduction of the 10th month of student grants, promised by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009 to take account of the lengthened university year from nine to 10 months. Last year the extra payment was split in two, with only half paid then and the other half due to be added this year.

There had been doubts about whether the measure would be introduced now, with reservations expressed by Economy Minister François Baroin because of the country's budgetary deficit.

But On Friday Wauquiez met student representatives and told them the extra month's grant would be paid from September. About 600,000 students will be eligible to receive the payment, at an estimated cost to the government of EUR160 million a year.

Responding to the two organisations' findings, Wauquiez told the French news agency AFP that the cost of living rise for students was "without doubt one of the lowest of the past five years".

He gave as an example that the rises of 1.7% in fees for a licence and a meal at a university canteen were lower than inflation.

"Student organisations are acting perfectly legitimately and it's their role to present their calculations, but these are not statistical and scientific assessments," he said. He added that he was asking OVE and his ministry's statistical service to make an official appraisal of the situation within the next few days.

"I don't take lightly the question of students' living costs, and I'm working on new solutions concerning rental costs, but everyone must take into account the efforts being made," said Wauquiez.

The minister stressed that "France is the European country where studies are least expensive", and that with the financial crisis the government had chosen not to increase student fees - "unlike Great Britain, Spain and Italy".