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France: Another attempt to reform the higher education landscape

On 4 June, the French Minister for Higher Education and Research, Geneviève Fioraso, signed the first 5-year contracts for the university “sites” in Alsace, Lorraine and Avignon, announcing thus the coming into being of a new type of territorial re-organisation of higher education institutions in France. This re-organisation is foreseen in the new law of education initiated by Madame Fioraso and currently under discussion in the Assemblée Nationale, where it passed the first reading. Through this proposed change the minister intends to bring about the (long-awaited) simplification of the French higher education landscape, by reducing the current number of higher education establishments from about 150 to only 30 communities of higher education institutions (communautés d’universités et d’établissements). The 30 communautés would group in each “site” universities and other types of higher education institutions, both public and private (e.g. business schools, engineering schools etc.). These establishments need not necessarily merge though, says the higher education minister, as it happened in the past with the creation of the University of Strasbourg, the Aix-Marseille University and the University of Lorraine (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, January 2012). Instead, they can choose to establish themselves as federations of institutions or ecosystems, having to coordinate their educational offer, their research strategies, and to pull together their resources. Each of the 30 communautés would be linked to government through one single contrat de site – a 5-year contract based on one single strategy for the entire grouping. While such a construction would certainly be beneficial for the government, who would have to deal with a significantly lower number of counterparts and sign fewer contracts and performance agreements, the critics of the measure warn about the potential undesirable consequences for the higher education institutions. The main criticism is that this apparent reduction of complexity will actually create another (unnecessary) layer of decision-making, increasing thus the red-tape for higher education institutions, while making things easier for the ministry. Fears have also been expressed concerning the fate of smaller-sized institutions, which might simply be “absorbed” by the bigger ones. And last but not least, there is the money issue. It is not clear how much funds will be available to support this substantial reform, all depending on the government’s budget for 2014 and further. For now, the amounts allocated for Alsace, Lorraine and Avignon are far from impressive: approx. EUR 7.5 million in total for a 5-year period (4 million for Alsace, 2.5 million for Lorraine and 1 million for Avignon).