The Economist     October 5, 1968

Will this keep the students quiet?

France's plans for university reform, which are to be debated in the national assembly next week, are designed to divide the students, separating the reformist sheep from the revolutionary goats. The education minister, M. Faure, has gone a long way in trying to satisfy the moderates and has had to fight off major opposition in the cabinet and from gaullist deputies at party meetings. Indeed, the government announced after two cabinet meetings that there had been disagreement on his plans; the first acknowledgment of dissension within the government in the Fifth Republic's history.

The bill has not been helped by students fighting this week. One group barricaded itself into the university buildings at Anthony to express its disagreement with government education policy, while at the Sorbonne on Monday "extremists" broke up a meeting of "moderates" which had been called to discuss university reform. If M. Faure's reforms go through relatively unscathed, as they probably in fact will, the "revolutionary" students fear that they may lose their present dominant position.

The bill covers a number of grievances that led to the May riots. For the first time it allows some student participation in university administration, and it cuts down the stifling centralisation that has ruled the universities since Napoleon. Under the existing system France is divided into 23 areas, each with its own university comprised of a number of faculties. The areas are controlled by rectors who are responsible to the minister of education and each faculty is run by a dean who is elected by his colleagues. Under the new proposals faculties would be run by elected committees of students and teachers who could call in outside members if they wanted.

University government would be on the same lines, with faculties choosing the university committee above them. The students would thus have a say in deciding their syllabus and the scope of their examinations. They would even have limited financial control; faculty committees would manage their share of funds, subject to later checking. But there would still be detailed control from Paris of any finances that were not purely routine. The ministry of education would still, for instance, decide on whether a faculty should be allowed to expand or recruit a new lecturer.

The most contentious of M. Faure's reforms is in the field of student politics. Until now political activity in the university has been banned, in theory at any rate. The new bill allows debates on political and economic subjects to take place but only if they not disrupt university life or disturb public order. How much this will mean in practice depends on each individual university.

At the moment there are more students in France than in Britain and Germany combined. This year the number goes up from 497,000 to 612,000, partly because an unusually high number of people passed the final lycée exam, the baccalaureat (which is the automatic qualification for university) and partly because of the postwar baby boom. In Paris the government has had to use the old Nato headquarters and seven other extra buildings to help accommodate the 35,000 extra students who are expected in the city. Inevitably, in these circumstances, the anonymity of university life and the lack of contact between students and teachers, will get worse, and it was partly this that caused the original trouble in May.

In practical terms, improving the staff ratio must mean reducing the number of
students. At the moment between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of them do not complete their courses. M. Faure has said that unsuitable students should be moved to other courses by the end of their first year, but this puts the invidious job of weeding out on their teachers and this kind of responsibility is not going to improve relations. However, the students' union itself is strongly against additional selective examinations. It argues that only 10 per cent of French students are from working-class homes (for success in the baccalaureat tends to go with a middle-class environment) and that further exams would decrease the proportion.

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