Fees freeze and plan to improve students’ conditions

University students will not have to pay more for their studies in the 2015-16 academic year in spite of an inspectors’ proposal for a substantial rise in fees.

As well as welcoming the fees freeze, students’ representatives have given a qualified welcome to recommendations for a national plan to improve students’ living and studying conditions.

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, higher education and research minister, and Thierry Mandon, the new state secretary for higher education and research, announced that annual enrolment fees for national degree courses in public institutions of higher education would remain unchanged at €184 (US$203) for a licence (bachelor level); €256 for a masters; €391 for a doctorate; and €610 for an engineering degree.

Their decision follows a report by the finance ministry and the general inspectorate of administration of national education and research, leaked to the financial newspaper Les Echos, which calculated an increase in fees to €1,000 would generate an additional €767 million for the universities, compared with 2012.

Students’ unions were predictably against the suggestion which FAGE, the Federation of General Students’ Associations, said would deliver a “fatal blow to efforts to democratise higher education and the concept of public service itself”.

UNEF, the National Union of French Students, repeated its “opposition to all kinds of increase to university enrolment fees, the principal consequence of which would be to aggravate social selection in access to studies”.

Student conditions report

Vallaud-Belkacem and Mandon announced the fees freeze on 6 July as they received a report setting out measures for a national plan to improve students’ living and studying conditions.

Prepared by a working group that included representatives of students, institutions, ministries, local authorities and associations, the Plan National de Vie Étudiante contains 54 recommendations under four main themes – simplifying procedures and access to rights; improving students’ conditions of living and studying; improving student healthcare; galvanising campus life and student involvement.

The plan covers such areas as cutting bureaucracy, help for foreign students and students taking paid employment, promoting sport and culture, and provision for disabled students.

An important feature is the launch in September of a comprehensive ‘one-stop student life’ website to provide all the information students and future students need, such as advice on housing and claiming benefits.

Students, who were represented on the working group, gave a qualified welcome to the report to which they had contributed, but demanded more funding and said they would be keeping a sharp eye on the application of the plan’s recommendations.

FAGE said this “ambitious exercise in social dialogue” had allowed “proposals for real improvement in conditions of life and studies”. But it warned that although the plan responded to several crucial problems it could not claim to resolve “the precarious situation more and more students are experiencing”.

It called for continuing reform of the grants system for “an increase in the number of recipients and an increase in the amounts”. It also claimed greater efforts needed to be made on student accommodation, including rent controls.

It would be carefully watching the 2016 budget allocations to universities, to students’ living conditions and to students’ welfare services.

UNEF criticised the plan’s “tight budgetary framework which rules out for now any new investment in the grants system”, but approved “some of the report’s proposals which will be useful in fighting insecurity”.

Although pleased at the freeze in fees, UNEF said that “students, even those with grants” had lost purchasing power since François Hollande had become president in 2012, and “the new academic year will be the most difficult for a long time”.

The student plan “must not be a ‘zero-euros plan’. It would not be acceptable for students to pay the consequences of austerity”, UNEF said, and it demanded funding for an additional 100,000 grants so all students whose parents’ income fell below the median could claim; and a 2.5% increase in grants to compensate for the loss of students’ purchasing power since 2012.

UNEF said it would be particularly vigilant over the application of the plan’s measures regarding access to social benefits, housing and healthcare, and to the administrative processes foreign students had to go through.