New minister for higher education and research

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem became France’s new minister for national education, higher education and research in the government reshuffle announced on 26 August. Geneviève Fioraso remains as secretary of state for higher education and research.

Vallaud-Belkacem, the first woman appointed to the post, replaces Benoît Hamon, who was minister for only five months.

She takes over a ministry overseeing 12 million schoolchildren and their 800,000 teachers, 2.5 million students and 160,000 employees in public higher education, and control of by far the highest state budget – totalling about €90 billion (US$119 billion) for 2014.

Vallaud-Belkacam (36) was born in Morocco and moved to France when she was four years old. She served in both previous governments formed under socialist President François Hollande following his election in 2012.

In the first she was minister for women’s rights and acted as the government’s representative. In the second, which took over in April 2014 under the current Prime Minister Manuel Valls, she added urban policy, youth and sports to her portfolio, but dropped the role of spokesperson for the government.

Now, in the third government under Hollande, she faces many challenges at all levels of education as the new academic year begins.

For higher education and research she has the support of state secretary Geneviève Fioraso, who has managed the sector since her appointment as minister for higher education and research in Hollande’s first government in 2012 – although her originally separate ministry was incorporated into the vast education ministry under Hamon.

Lack of financial resources is the first preoccupation for universities, which will suffer cuts in real terms of €189 million for the 2014-15 academic year, and €1.6 billion during 2015-17.

These are the latest blows in a deteriorating financial situation for institutions whose rising costs, mostly due to salaries, are not being offset by state budget increases. Some, such as the universities of Versailles Saint-Quentin and Montpellier 3, are in serious trouble.

Universities are also undergoing major controversial reforms requiring them to reorganise themselves regionally into merged institutions, communities or associations, with the aim of creating about 30 university ‘hubs’ nationwide.

The process is nearly complete, in spite of strong protests from some in the higher education community; but the new structures have yet to be officially adopted and start operating.

Other measures from Fioraso’s 2013 law due for introduction include reform of the licence (bachelor equivalent), and replacement of AERES – Agence d’Évaluation de la Recherche et de l’Enseignement Supérieur – by the HCERES, the Haut Conseil de l’Évaluation de la Recherche et de l’Enseignement Supérieur.

Concerning students, a controversial issue is whether selection at masters level, and perhaps later the licence, might be introduced.

And student unions have raised the alert about rising living costs for students, of between 1.5% according to the Fédération des Associations Générales Étudiants and 2%, according to the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France.