Big student grants increase in reformed system

Student unions in France have welcomed the announcement of a reformed system of student benefits – including a substantial increase in grants – costing an extra €318 million (US$417 million) for the next two years, starting from the new university year in September.

Geneviève Fioraso, minister of higher education and research, met student representatives on Tuesday to explain the reform, which will be introduced in two stages, starting with students in greatest difficulty. Further measures will come into effect from 2014-15.

Extra funding for the first year totals €118 million. Altogether 92,000 students, more than one grant-holder in seven, will benefit from the reform, according to the ministry.

Priority for 2013-14 is being given to students from the most disadvantaged families; those who have to take paid work while studying, thus reducing their chances of graduating successfully; and those who are living without support (for example, through family breakup).

Fioraso announced four measures that will take effect from September:
  • • There will be upgrading of grants by €700 (15%) a year for 30,000 students from the lowest income families, raising their benefits, which are paid over 10 months, from €4,019 to €5,500.
  • • 55,000 grants of €1,000 a year will be introduced for middle-class but low-income students who at present are exempt from university fees and social security contributions but not eligible for financial benefits, and who often have to work long hours to earn enough to make ends meet.
  • • For students without family support, who are eligible not for normal grants but for benefits from an emergency fund, 1,000 extra allowances of between €4,000 and €5,500 will be introduced (compared to €3,600 at present), raising the number of these beneficiaries from 6,000 to 7,000.
  • • From September, there will be a 1% increase to all grants, to take account of inflation and preserve the purchasing power of the 572,000 students receiving grants.
In 2014-15 the system will be widened further to include more students, with a supplementary budget of €200 million.

Student organisations have broadly supported the new arrangement.

The students’ federation Fage expressed satisfaction at “the wish of the government to act in favour of student success and the democratisation of higher education”, and at “these announcements, which go in the right direction”.

However, it called on Fioraso not to stop at “emergency measures, by definition incomplete”, but to remain engaged in constructing success for all.

Majority students’ union Unef noted that the programme’s funding represented “more than all the measures taken for students in the past 15 years”, and that the reform would mean less of a struggle for 100,000 students.

It said the measures corresponded to its own previous claims, and represented “a big step forward towards reform for an autonomy benefit, promised by [President] François Hollande”.

The benefits reform follows adoption by the national assembly earlier this month of the Loi ESR, Fioraso’s ambitious higher education and research legislation, and reflects the election promise of Hollande to give priority to young people.

The government’s aim is for 50% of each age group to graduate in higher education.