Student success a priority, but HE has funding fears

In the wake of criticism from university presidents over lack of resources, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the new national education, higher education and research minister, and Geneviève Fioraso, secretary of state for higher education and research, defended their budget and promised priority for ensuring student success during the academic year that is just beginning.

A total of 2,466,500 students are starting the new year, an increase of 1.5% over last year.

Of these, 1,445,200 – or 63% – are enrolled in universities, with the others attending institutes of technology (118,700); preparatory classes for entrance to the grandes écoles (85,000); sections de techniciens supérieurs, departments for advanced technical training (268,700); and other public or private institutions (548,700), according to ministry figures.

Presenting their plans for the 2014-15 year, Vallaud-Belkacem and Fioraso emphasised that their first priority was to ensure success for the greatest number of students in their studies, with more help for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

New measures include increased grants for more beneficiaries, government rental guarantees for students looking for accommodation in the private sector, better guidance on and easier access to appropriate courses, greater provision of digitisation and promotion of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and introduction of a ‘student entrepreneur’ statute.

This is also the first year that controversial reforms are taking effect, reorganising universities and other higher education institutions and research organisations into 25 hubs throughout the country.

The government’s professed aim is to improve university-research links and consistency throughout the system, and to attract more international students to study in France.

Warning from university presidents

But the new year started with a warning from the Conférence des Présidents d’Université, or CPU, which this month claimed that “major financial risk” could put some universities in a “very perilous situation” because of the “regular increases in expenditure for which institutions are responsible following decisions by the state – but without any real compensation from it”.

The CPU estimated that, from preliminary information made available about the 2015 budget, there was a shortfall of €200 million (US$255 million) between universities’ mandatory expenses and government allocations. The CPU feared it could result in the French system falling far behind its European and international counterparts.

Vallaud-Belkacem and Fioraso defended their budget, full details of which will be officially announced next week. The higher education and research budget for 2014 totalled €26.06 billion.

Vallaud-Belkacem said she could not let it be said that they had not made the necessary efforts on the budget. She pointed out the allocation for higher education and research had increased by €600 million since 2012, “which is not insignificant”, and that the amount for 2015 would rise by €45 million.

Fioraso said it was normal to ask for extra funds “in this period of negotiation” and they would respond in part to the CPU’s expectations.

She said that universities’ financial problems were less than they had been. While 16 universities were in deficit in 2012 – when the socialist-led government took over – there were only eight last year, and four now.

But the principal students’ union Unef said the extra funding was insufficient for universities to cater for the increased number of students and to pay for the 1,000 new teaching posts the ministry was committed to creating.

It said it refused that students should “pay the consequences of budgetary austerity” and demanded an extra €200 million to finance the extra posts and universities’ increased charges, and €1 billion more in funding for first degree studies.