New minister unveils plans for more ‘collegiate’ university governance

France’s parliament will debate a new framework law for higher education in early 2013. While universities will retain autonomy, their governance will be radically reformed. An action plan aimed at cutting the high student first-degree failure rate will also be given priority.

New President François Hollande during his presidential campaign earlier this year promised "profound reform" for higher education. Last week Geneviève Fioraso (pictured), the new socialist minister for higher education and research, set out her objectives in an interview in Le Monde.

Fioraso said the new legislation would replace the LRU, the flagship Universities Freedom and Responsibilities law passed in 2007 under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. She said she did not want to call university autonomy into question, “but we have to be realistic. The LRU has not really given universities the resources to exercise this autonomy.”

She told Le Monde the legislation would be presented to parliament at the beginning of 2013 “after a big consultation with all the university community”. Regional debates in October would be followed by national ones at the end of November and the beginning of December.

She said the LRU had “huge defects; collegiality has been abandoned, and on paper we are facing a hyper-presidential situation” in which university presidents had all the powers. But in reality, if a president wanted to innovate or to carry out an independent policy “they get their knuckles rapped by the ministry. So autonomy as it has been imposed is a total illusion.”

She criticised the reduction in lecturer and student representatives on university boards, and said it was not possible to organise a university in the same way as a company. Collegiality, “the true university spirit”, must be restored, she said.

Another problem with the LRU was funding for universities which, said Le Monde, were ‘strangled’ by new expenses.

According to the lecturers’ union SGEN-CFDT, an estimated €35 million (US$43.7 million) was needed nationally to settle increased expenditure on salaries. Another union, SNESUP, was demanding an additional 1,000 lecturer-researchers for the start of the new university year opening in September, said the paper.

Fioraso would not commit herself to financial promises that she might not be able to keep, but said she was awaiting a report from the Cour des Comptes (audit office) and would draw up a ‘complete’ balance sheet in the third week of June.

She had already been surprised to find the ministry had not budgeted for some items, including an annual €160 million for extending student grants to a 10th month.

Her other priorities include an action plan to reduce the high student first-degree failure rate.

Fioraso told Le Monde that the previous government’s plan launched in 2007 had cost €730 million but had resulted in no improvement to first-degree pass rates.

“How were these millions used? Why hasn’t it worked?”

She and Vincent Peillon, the new education minister, would work together to make sure students were prepared during the final three years of schooling and supported during the first three years at university.

It was vital for students to choose appropriate higher education studies, and to be able to change courses if necessary, said Fioraso, who suggested introducing an extra year for students from technological streams who needed it. “Everything is on the table, ready for discussion,” she said.

On the subject of Idex, the previous government’s controversial ‘investments of excellence’, Fioraso said there would be review – but no good project would be harmed.

Unions are demanding abolition of the selective programme set up to boost France’s international competitiveness in higher education and research.

A regional rebalancing of the projects seems likely. “How can one explain that the North, the West and Rhône-Alpes, the second region of university research, have been forgotten? In other countries they take account of universities’ diversity,” Fioraso told Le Monde.