Students condemn increased cost of living, registration fees and charges

In the run-up to the new academic year, France’s two biggest student organisations have condemned rises in students’ living costs and demanded that the government reverse increases in university registration fees and other compulsory charges.

Minister for Higher Education and Research Geneviève Fioraso sympathised with students whose purchasing power was declining, but denied she had raised fees unreasonably and said she was giving priority to making higher education more accessible to young people from poorer families.

Both the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF) and the Fédération des Associations Générales d’Étudiants (FAGE) last week published their annual inquiries into students’ living expenses.

UNEF claimed that these would rise by 3.7% in 2012-13 compared to last year – nearly twice the rate of inflation – while FAGE calculated that a student would have to pay €2,434.33 (US$3,060) at the start of the university year, 2.6% more than in 2011-12.

A major cause of the increased costs was an explosion in rents, which had risen 10.8% in Paris and 2.3% in the rest of the country according to UNEF, which warned of the ‘pauperisation’ of students. FAGE said housing represented more than 45% of students’ budgets.

Other items that had risen sharply in terms of costs were clothes, up 4%, and food, up 3.2%, UNEF said.

FAGE criticised in particular the rise in compulsory charges such as university registration fees, which are fixed annually by government decree. This year they are €181 for a licence (bachelor equivalent) course, up by 2.26%; €250 for a masters, up 2%; and €380 for a doctorate, up 2.15%.

University restaurant meals and compulsory social security contributions had also increased.

FAGE, which has been carrying out its inquiries for 10 years, calculated that student costs had risen by 50% over the past decade – “33 points more than inflation, while social benefits rose by only 23%”. During that time enrolment fees had risen by 28%, 11 points above inflation, it said.

UNEF described students as “the least protected population”. It said the economic crisis had made it impossible for many parents to fund their children’s higher education and, with only two students in 10 in receipt of grants, 80% had no financial support.

As a result student wages had become the chief means for financing studies, with 73% of students now taking paid employment compared with only 48% in 2006. Students who took paid jobs were twice as likely to fail their exams as those who could study full time, said UNEF.

Both organisations demanded reform of student financial benefits, which they proposed could be paid for by reorganisation of a tax concession made to families with responsibility for a student, which generally favoured the better-off.

UNEF called for a doubling of the grants budget and introduction of an ‘autonomy allowance’ – a grant for living expenses for all students not dependent on their families, as promised by the socialist President François Hollande during his election campaign earlier this year.

FAGE proposed a means-tested allowance for which twice the number of students currently receiving a grant would be eligible.

In response to the two organisations, Minister Fioraso said that students, like all French people, had seen their purchasing power diminish in the past few years; policies of the previous right-wing government had aggravated their difficulties, she said.

Her major priority was to widen access to higher education, and she was introducing an ambitious policy to support students from modest backgrounds.

Fioraso denied raising university charges substantially, pointing out that “while several countries have chosen to increase very significantly that part of the costs of education financed by the students”, French registration fees had risen only by the inflation rate of 2.1%. This year’s increases were only €4 for a licence course, €5 for a masters and €8 for a doctorate, she said.

Apart from Scandinavian countries, where higher education was free, France’s fees were among the lowest in the world, she added. Student grants had been raised by 2.1%.

A major new initiative was the government’s decision to control rents, which would favour very many students.

Fioraso said the president had expressed his intention to review existing benefits, and create a means-tested higher education allowance. Consultations would begin soon, she said.