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Turmoil at French universities could leave students facing missed year - The Guardian, 23 avril 2009

dimanche 26 avril 2009, par Mathieu

Pour lire l’article sur le site de The Guardian

French universities, paralysed by three months of student blockades and staff strikes, were warned by the government to resume teaching yesterday or risk damaging France’s image on the world stage.

Since February, various universities have been thrown into chaos by the biggest higher education revolt in modern French history, surpassing the protests of May 1968 in terms of the numbers of academic staff who have gone on strike.

This year students have barricaded colleges with desks and chairs, and briefly held two university rectors hostage, while swaths of researchers and lecturers have walked out on strike in protest at what the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had promised would be his most bold and daring reform : overhauling the crumbling French higher education system.

The crisis is now so acute that ministers have warned that if lectures do not resume before May, students across France who have had no syllabus teaching for months could be forced to miss exams and forfeit an entire undergraduate year. The prime minister, François Fillon, said yesterday : "The government will never accept exams being sacrificed. That would be a catastrophe for France’s image in the world."

After decades of under-funding, French universities are overcrowded, have high dropout rates, fail to make international league tables and have been called a national disgrace by business leaders. The handful of well-funded, tiny, elitist graduate schools continue to thrive while the majority of universities struggle.

University reform in France has always been an explosive issue, often the touch-paper for wider protests. When Sarkozy came to power in 2007, he promised to radically revamp universities, giving their heads more autonomy to run faculties more along the lines of successful commercial businesses.

Yet his government’s handling of the reform and his insults of university researchers have resulted in chaos instead. In general, academics agree that wide-reaching reform is needed. But they have now joined protest movements radically opposing Sarkozy’s approach, which they see as an attempt to run higher education along "capitalist lines". The president’s leadership has been accused of displaying "contempt" for intellectuals.

The government has agreed to temporarily freeze its planned university job cuts and tweak its proposals. Academics, however, are still protesting plans that would change the status of academic researchers and allow university presidents to decide how such staff spend their time.

"I couldn’t have foreseen how radical a stance I’ve ended up taking, but the whole fabric of higher education is at stake," said Valérie Robert, a lecturer in German history at a Paris university, who has been on strike since January. "You can’t measure universities like a factory in terms of economic success, we feel our freedom as academics researchers is being totally curbed."

Yesterday the government estimated that 20 to 25 universities out of out of 83 were still affected by the protests. Strikers warned that others could rejoin the movement after the holidays next week.