Low fees but jobs needed to meet costs

Students in French universities pay among the lowest fees in Europe. But although education ministers claim that, despite austerity, funding for student benefits has kept up with purchasing power, student organisations say the cost of starting the new academic year for students is up to 2% higher than last year.

The government has not gone down the route of charging students high sums for university studies, and fixes the modest rates by decree. For the 2014-15 academic year, enrolment fees have increased by 0.7%, to €184 (US$236) annually for a three-year licence (bachelor equivalent) course, €256 for a masters, €391 for a doctorate and €610 for an engineering diploma.

But while students do not have to worry about high fees, they need money to live on during the university year. In its inquiry La Vie Étudiante: Repères, the Observatoire de la Vie Étudiante, or OVE, identified the main sources of student income.

The most common was family support, accounting for 30% of student resources and paying an average of €308 a month. This was followed closely by wages from paid work, at 29%, providing €618 on average; then public benefits such as those from the government and from local and regional authorities, representing 25%, and an average of €307 monthly.

Other sources, each representing 6% or less of student income, included contributions from a spouse or partner, savings, and, at a bare 1%, student loans, which are available from some banks under government guarantee.

Nearly one in two students did paid work during the university year, according to OVE, which found that 20% who had a job considered it had a ‘negative impact’ on their studies. More than half considered their employment essential for survival.

OVE reported that a third of the students lived with one or both parents, a third in rented accommodation either alone or in a couple with or without children, and 12% were in private rentals shared with others. Only 11% lived in subsidised university housing. Rents averaged €426 across the country, and were highest in Paris at €597.

The 2015 budget allocated €2.5 billion (US$3.2 billion) for ‘student life’, an increase of €42 million, or 1.7%, over last year.

In September, marking the start of the university year, the Minister for Education, Higher Education and Research, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, and State Secretary for Higher Education and Research, Geneviève Fioraso, stressed their first priority was to ensure academic success for the greatest number of students, with more help for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Among measures they announced were increased grants for more students, continuation of an intensive student housing construction plan and government rental guarantees for those looking for accommodation in the private sector.

However, the government has this year discontinued merit grants, previously awarded to about 7,000 new students each year for three years, in favour of increasing grants paid according to social criteria.

In spite of more generous benefits, students and their families face stiff cost-of-living increases at the start of this academic year, according to the Fédération des Associations Générales Étudiantes, or FAGE, and the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France, or UNEF.

FAGE calculated a student had to spend an average of €2,525 to start the university year, 1.5% more than last year while UNEF reckoned the increase was 2%, “four times the rate of inflation for the past year”. The main causes were higher rents, and increases in unavoidable expenses such as enrolment fees, university meals and social security payments.

While previous reforms had improved the purchasing power of 160,000 students by cutting their study costs by 7.4%, the remainder faced substantial increases of 5.5% for those on grants, and 3.6% for the others, claimed UNEF.

The union said grants reform was “still far from the promise of a student autonomy allowance” made by François Hollande during his presidential campaign, and it urged further benefit increases and widened access for more students.

FAGE asserted that 28% of students had to take paid work to get by, and that there was a 50% risk of academic failure for those who worked more than 12 hours a week. It called for the government to open urgently a “comprehensive and ambitious plan for students’ living conditions”.