Budget restores €100 million cut from universities last year

As a record number of students start the new university year, the government has announced that higher education and research are priorities and their 2016 budget has been spared from cuts.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has made a pre-budget announcement of an extra €100 million (US$113 million) for higher education. However, although university presidents welcomed the statement they said the amount fell short of their needs.

Last year the government cut €100 million from the working capital of about 50 universities and engineering schools. In his ‘good news’ announcement last week Valls said this practice would not be repeated, and a government amendment would restore the funding during the parliamentary debate on the budget.

Jean-Loup Salzmann, president of the Conférence des Présidents d’Université, expressed relief that universities’ funds would not be cut for a second year, but said the gesture was only part of the solution and that “there remains a €200 million shortfall to finance the new expenditure the universities must bear”.

The total 2016 budget for higher education and research is €23.25 billion (US$26.3 billion), a rise of €347 million compared with 2015. The allocation for higher education is €13.006 billion plus €2.54 billion for student support services, and for research it is €7.71 billion.

The higher education budget includes an extra €65 million earmarked for funding approximately 1,000 new teaching posts to help cope with the present explosion in student numbers, especially in the universities.

In the 2015-16 academic year the number of students totals 2,506,890, according to government figures, an increase of 65,000 over the previous year. The student roll is expected to rise to 3 million in five years’ time.

The government’s national strategy for higher education, set out in the report Pour Une Société Apprenante: Propositions pour une stratégie nationale de l’enseignement supérieur and confirmed by President François Hollande, fixes a target of 60% of an age group to be graduates by 2025, compared with 42% at present.

The strategy, known as StraNES, is the outcome of a major inquiry into the French higher education system set up under legislation of 2013. The report by Sophie Béjean, president of Campus France and former president of the University of Burgundy, and Bertrand Monthubert, president of the University Paul Sabatier Toulouse III, defines national objectives for the next decade and proposes the means for achieving them.

Its recommendations include:
  • • Improving links between upper secondary school and higher education, and better guidance for prospective students to choose courses that suit them;
  • • Developing an effective cross-disciplinary system for lifelong education;
  • • Strengthening the European and international dimension of higher education, doubling the number of foreign students by 2025;
  • • A “true democratisation” of access to higher education, halving the graduation gap between the children of working-class parents and those of professionals.
But while the StraNES committee stressed the need to find the resources to pay for a learning society, it rejected the controversial option of raising university fees. These are currently €184 a year for a licence (bachelor level course) and €256 for a masters.

The report’s authors said: “The possibility of an increase in enrolment fees – which was thoroughly examined – would be, in our view, contrary to our social model according to which each repays through taxes the investment that the nation has made for his or her education.”

Instead, the report recommended the state should make a strong commitment by raising its higher education funding to 2% of gross domestic product, or GDP, against 1.5% at present. Also, companies should make a greater contribution, as they stood to benefit from a well-educated workforce.