New minister for HE and research in enlarged ministry

France has a new government, including a new minister in charge of higher education and research. Genevieve Fioraso has been replaced by Benoit Hamon, who takes over an enlarged Ministry for National Education, Higher Education and Research.

Hamon (47) joins the government of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who has replaced Jean-Marc Ayrault following poor results for the Socialist Party of President Francois Hollande in municipal elections at the end of March.

Hamon's new post is a promotion for him - he was previously a junior minister in the Ministry for Economy and Finances, with responsibility for 'social and solidarity-based economy, and consumption'.

When still at high school Hamon was a leading activist in a massive student protest movement against the 1986 Devaquet reforms, which would have introduced student selection at university entrance. The legislation was subsequently withdrawn.

He was a member of the national students' union UNEF, a recognised springboard into leftist politics, and he graduated from the University of Brest with a degree in history. From 1993 to 1995 he was president of the Mouvement des Jeunes Socialistes.

Hamon has spent most of his career within the Socialist party, maintaining strong links with its youth movements. He was a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2009, and was elected to the National Assembly in 2012. He is regarded as being on the left wing of the Socialist party.

At the transfer of power ceremony Fioraso recalled achievements made during her two years as minister, a period when higher education and research were relatively protected in state budgets in spite of national austerity.

She had started by conducting a nationwide debate to determine the future of higher education and research, which led to a new law in 2013.

This amended legislation enacted by the previous right-wing government of President Nicolas Sarkozy which gave universities greater autonomy but was criticised by unions for introducing competition between institutions, and was blamed for contributing to continuing financial difficulties at some universities.

Measures initiated by Fioraso included:
  • • Increased funding for student grants; greater priority for students from disadvantaged backgrounds; and a student housing expansion programme.
  • • Revival of the Operation Campus construction programme for flagship institutions.
  • • Simplification of the degree system within a new national framework, which cut the number of licences (bachelor equivalent) from 300 to 45, and masters from 5,000 to 250; and reform of the licence including introduction of a more general first year, to cut the high failure rate by making it possible for a student to switch to a more appropriate course without restarting from zero.
  • • Reforms to make research more competitive, provoking opposition from scientists.
  • Introduction of MOOCs.
Valls, as interior minister, repealed the widely condemned Gueant circular that restricted residence and employment rights of non-European Union students and graduates in France.

With Hamon likely to be preoccupied with schools, there is speculation that next week, when the names of junior government ministers and state secretaries will be announced, Fioraso might be appointed to remain at the enlarged ministry in charge of higher education and research.