New socialist president pledges to help poor and foreign students

French higher education is preparing for a strategic change from ‘competitiveness’ to ‘cooperation’ following a presidential election in which socialist François Hollande defeated right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

Presenting his plans for higher education and research during the run-up to Sunday’s election, Hollande promised to introduce measures against student failure, a national plan to improve students’ living conditions, reform of Sarkozy’s controversial university autonomy law, reversal of regional inequalities and increased support for research and researchers.

And in a move that will be welcomed by many academics, students and employers, Hollande has undertaken to withdraw a controversial circular that tightened restrictions on foreign students and graduates from outside the European Union, forcing many of them to leave France.

While Sarkozy emphasised competitiveness in higher education and research – internationally through his determination for France to shine in global rankings, and at home through introduction of competitive bidding between institutions for funding – Hollande stressed that “cooperation must take the place of competition”.

He said he had chosen to make youth his priority “because France’s greatest problem is preparing for its future, and the way we treat the coming generation”.

His first aim was to increase the student success rate, with reform of the licence, the bachelor-equivalent first degree, which nearly half of students currently fail.

Among measures he proposed were new services to advise young people on appropriate courses, and work experience during their studies. Out of 60,000 new teaching posts he has promised for education as a whole, 5,000 would be devoted to higher education, mainly to the licence.

To improve students’ living conditions Hollande proposed a means-tested higher education benefit, along with measures to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, to reduce the dependence of many on outside paid work.

He also said he would launch a building programme for 40,000 new student housing units over five years, in addition to social housing to which students should be entitled.

Universities, he said, were “financially asphyxiated”; some had been placed under supervision (by their education authority) because their funding was not sufficient to cover increased expenditure following the transfer to institutions of responsibilities, such as human resources and accountancy, under the 2007 Universities Freedom and Responsibilities law (LRU).

Hollande said he would “profoundly reform” the LRU after a public debate had taken place.

“It’s not a question of going back on the principle of autonomy” but “the way it has been carried out,” he said, promising a “more collegial and democratic governance” of universities that respected academic freedom, and funding that would not worsen disparities or cut education.

He also intended to simplify the higher education and research landscape, which had become “incomprehensible” under an accumulation of new structures. The evaluation agency AERES was too complex and opaque, and its role and methods would be redefined, he said.

On research, he said France’s performance had fallen in OECD countries from fourth to 15th place in the past decade. Funding of the CNRS, the national scientific research centre, was down by 12%, and private research was stagnating in spite of the crédit impôt recherche (CIR), a tax break for companies carrying out research.

The situation for young researchers had continued to deteriorate, with too few job opportunities in private and public sector alike and insufficient funding for doctoral students, said Hollande.

It was thanks to foreign students, who accounted for 40% of PhDs, that the number of theses produced in France had not fallen. But these students were treated badly, said Hollande.

He was referring to a circular issued by interior minister Claude Guéant a year ago, which tightened up restrictions on non-European students and graduates living and working in France, many of whom have been expelled from the country.

The measures were opposed by students, academics, and the organisations representing heads of universities and grandes écoles, but also by politicians and employers who feared France would no longer be able to attract talented foreigners. Hollande has promised to withdraw the circular.

He would also aim to introduce improved status and guarantees for researchers, including funding of theses for doctoral students under an employment contract ensuring social security and retirement entitlements.

He said private research also needed attention. The CIR had tripled since 2007, but research in companies had stagnated, with 80% of the funds benefiting big enterprises.

Hollande said the CIR would be “recentred on companies that use it best”. Contracts with public laboratories would encourage collaboration between the two sectors, and make transfers, innovation and development easier. He promised more resources for basic research, “the great sacrifice of the latest years”.

He said he would not undo Sarkozy’s Investissements de l’avenir projects and campuses ‘of excellence’ selected by competitive bids and financed by interest from a €35 billion (US$50 billion) national loan.

He explained he would not upset the considerable work already carried out by those involved or disown the state’s commitment; but the programme had led to disparities, and the regional inequalities must be corrected.

Following Hollande’s election, SNESUP, the major union representing higher education and research personnel, welcomed the defeat of Sarkozy and the end of the “calamitous five years”.

It demanded a “break with the policies of the past decade” and for repeal of laws introduced under the previous regime “to stop the deepening of inequalities between insitutions”.

The national researchers' union SNCS-FSU welcomed Hollande's election and the “change which is opening up hope for the scientific community of another policy for research”. It called for dismantling of the reforms of the Sarkozy years, and urgent measures “to return to research organisations their national mission of rebuilding research”.

The student union Confédération Etudiante said its priorities were improved job opportunities, student housing, social aid for the poorest students, and international opening-up and student mobility. It demanded withdrawal of the Guéant circular within 30 days.

The formal transfer of power from Sarkozy will take place on 15 May, when the name of the prime minister will also be announced. The second and decisive round of the general election, which Hollande is counting on for a majority, follows on 17 June.