Page last updated at 07:00 GMT, Friday, 8 May 2009 08:00 UK

Strikes cripple French universities

Student protest in Bordeaux (2 April 2009)
France's public universities are overcrowded and under-funded

Staff and students at almost a quarter of France's state-run universities remain on strike over government plans to overhaul the higher education system.

The protests are now in their 14th week and may mean that some pupils, who have missed out on months of teaching, will have to miss their exams and repeat an entire academic year, the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby in Paris says.

In 1968, the then French education minister, Alain Peyrefitte, said the French university system was "like organising a shipwreck to find out who could swim".

Forty years on and you get the feeling that an awful lot of people in higher education here are not swimming but drowning.

Despite concessions by the education ministry, students and lecturers at around 20 of France's 83 state-run universities are still on strike this week, barricading classrooms and paralysing faculties.

Student protest outside the Sorbonne
Missing some exams is nothing compared to this attack on our public services
Loan, student at the Sorbonne

Last month, statistics students from the technical college in the southern town of Avignon took their final exam in a local branch of McDonald's because their faculty had been shut by protesters.

The government has warned that if lectures do not resume quickly, students across the country will have to miss their exams and may have to forfeit an entire undergraduate year, damaging France's academic reputation abroad.

But students like Loan, who is studying English at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, says that will not put them off.

"I've been on strike for three months now," she told me as she sat on the steps of the Sorbonne attending an "outdoor" lecture as part of a publicity stunt for the protest.

"And missing some exams is nothing compared to this attack on our public services."

Unwelcome reforms

The row was originally sparked by plans to change the status of academic researchers and to give university presidents more say over how staff spend their time.

Competition is just a right-wing ideology - in the case of humanities, competitiveness doesn't even make any sense
Professor Barbara le Lan

But it has since escalated into a much more general dispute over President Nicolas Sarkozy's promise to completely overhaul the higher education system.

The French leader wants to give individual universities more autonomy to run their faculties along the lines of successful commercial businesses and to make them more competitive.

Students and lecturers, however, have interpreted his proposal as an ultra-capitalist attempt to privatise the education system which will simply force up fees.

"Competition is just a right-wing ideology - in the case of humanities, competitiveness doesn't even make any sense," says Sorbonne English Professor Barbara le Lan.

Protester wearing Sarkozy "devil" mask
Many reject President Sarkozy's plan to reform the higher education system

"French universities are the least demanding universities as far as results go."

Everyone in France who passes the Baccalaureat or "Bac" has the right to take up a state university place.

The result is that the France's public universities are overcrowded, under-funded, have high drop-out rates and fail to make any international league tables. So would a little competition really hurt?

"We have a republican conception of universities," explains Sandra Nossik, a student who has now spent eight years in the French university system and who was demonstrating last week in a Paris train station.

"They have to be open to everyone," she added. "We don't like this neo-liberal view of knowledge... and we don't want to have to answer to the government or businesses."

'Marking' teachers

About 4% of French students make it into the well-funded, small and elitist graduate schools or Grandes ecoles, such as Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po), where a bright future is pretty much guaranteed.

In those schools, students even have the right to "mark" their teachers on the quality of their lessons.

Police dismantle a barricade set up by students outside the Sorbonne (8 April 2009)
University reform has always been an explosive issue in France

Teachers who are deemed to be performing poorly are given a polite kick up the backside.

One of President Sarkozy's demands is that lecturers at the state universities, who are paid to research as well as teach, should be monitored a little more closely to make sure that they are indeed researching and are not simply doing nothing or spending their spare time giving private lessons.

He wants to set targets for the number of academic papers they publish. Professors like Ms Le Lan are simply horrified at the idea that academics should be subjected to quotas.

The government is determined to shake up the terms of employment for lecturers.

France is the only European country, and in fact one of the last countries in the entire developed world, where teachers are civil servants.

Those that support the government's reforms feel that the current higher education system is geared very much towards the teachers' needs and very little to the students'.

Unprecedented strike

Last year, I attended a psychology class at Montpellier University, where students were crammed into a grubby lecture hall and where the acoustics were so bad that the pupils on the back three rows had given up trying to catch the wise mumblings from the distant podium and had either nodded off altogether under a copy of Liberation or were simply listening to their iPods.

Valerie Pecresse (left), Xavier Darcos and Nicolas Sarkozy
Ministers have already backed down on several aspects of their proposals

With such huge class sizes, a close teacher-pupil relationship is just not possible.

And state universities are also chronically under-funded - the prestigious Sorbonne spends scarcely 3,000 euros (£2,650; $4,000) on each student per year - compare that to the 110,000 euros (£97,000; $147,000) spent on each undergraduate at Princeton in the US.

Almost everyone agrees that the crumbling French higher education system desperately needs a revamp, but university reform has always been an explosive issue here.

The Higher Education Minister, Valerie Pecresse, has already backed down on several aspects of the planned reforms, but the blockades and strikes persist.

And in terms of the numbers of academic staff who have gone on strike, this protest, now in its 14th week, surpasses even the protests of May 1968.

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