Crisis in French universities By Sam Stratham MONTPELLIER, France — On November 9 students in the town of Montpellier joined more than 16,000 students across France in a national day of action to protest the Chirac government's cuts to education funding. The action was organised to coincide with parliamentary voting on the 1996 education budget.
Twenty years ago, the Arts Campus of Paul Valery University in Montpellier was built to accommodate 6,000 students. Today, with no extra space, it holds 18,500 and has a staff shortage of 300. Students at the Law Campus use videocom to share one lecturer between two amphitheatres. The campus now faces closure due to the "insecurity" of the badly maintained buildings. In the month since classes began, students across France have faced similar problems as the Chirac government cuts education spending. This year's tertiary education budget created just 450 new staff to teach 51,000 extra students. According to the National Union of Students of France this meets only 9% of the need. Every year staff struggle, often on unpaid time, to cover all the courses as teaching hours are reduced year after year. The first response of university administrations to the overload has been to reduce student numbers using various "selection" methods at the point of enrolment. These include increasing up-front fees, imposing illegal entrance tests, and even enrolling on a "first in first served" basis or drawing names at random. Another response has been to increase the first year failure rate to up to 90% in some faculties. Students who fail any courses are classified ineligible for the state bursary (the Austudy equivalent) when they next enrol. Many students who are eligible for the bursary this year still have not received a payment due to administrative technicalities. Meanwhile government rent assistance has been reduced by 30%, forcing more students into waged work to finance their studies. Other gains of the French student movement over the years are also being clawed back — state subsidisation of campus restaurants is declining, student housing (which only satisfies 10% of demand) is gradually being privatised, compulsory health insurance contributions on enrolment are increasing rapidly, and, where they existed, half-fares for students using public transport are being removed. In contrast to these attacks on the basic education infrastructure, on September 4 the French Education Ministry opened its finest exhibit — the now infamous "Pasqua" Faculty in Paris. Those 363 students who can afford the up-front "contribution" of f26,000 (A$8,000) to study commerce and production technology there will benefit greatly from the spending of 75% of the tertiary education budget of the Hauts-de-Seine department on this facility alone. Developed with a 33% "contribution" from a private consortium of 32 enterprises, this "revolutionary" campus is located just two kilometres from the Nanterre Faculty, the birthplace of the radical Movement of March 22 in 1968. Nanterre was built for 18,000 students but currently holds 35,000. With pay-as-you-learn excluding more and more people from tertiary education (today only 18% of tertiary students are from a working class background), and Chirac's nuclear tests costing the equivalent of free education for 2 million students, France's students are mobilising again. The November 9 actions were the first effort at a coordinated national mobilisation of students in France in some time. At Rouen, students are boycotting classes until the State pays the f12 million it owes them and changes its budget priorities. On strike since October 16, they have demonstrated their anger in occupations of the chancellery and the train station. On November 9, 1000 of them travelled to the Paris demonstration on a chartered train. In Paris, the Nanterre students are mobilising in demonstrations and occupations against what is clearly "elite campuses for the rich and rubbish campuses for the poor". On November 9, 3000 Nanterre students joined the demonstrations. Participation in the November 9 action was strongest from the three regional Faculties which have also been strike. At Toulouse, students in the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science occupied their administrative building on October 24-25, denouncing "the degradation of their conditions of study". Four thousand of these students joined the national day of action. Students at the University of Aix-en-Province, on strike since November 8, are occupying the administration buildings until their demands are met. On November 9, 4000 Aix-en-Province students took to the streets. The most successful demonstration was at Metz, where 5000 students took to the streets. Encouraged, they reassembled afterwards and voted to continue their strike. The November 9 budget was passed and the students of France face a continuing struggle to defend the right to education for all in this country.