Students began occupying a handful of universities in March over plans to give public universities the power to set admission criteria and rank applicants — moves students assailed as a violation of the French principle of free education for all.
Currently, students who pass their school-leaving “baccalaureat” exam can enrol in any university course, a situation blamed by the government for
overcrowding and the failure of 60 percent of students to complete their degree within four years.
The situation reached a crisis point last year, with universities using a lottery system to share out places in dozens of oversubscribed courses,
causing disappointment for thousands.
Now, public universities will be given access to a student's school records to help them select those whose “motivation” and “aptitudes” best match the
course on offer.
For Florian Mazet, who studies economics at the Nanterre University west of Paris that fired up the 1968 protests, the changes are nothing short of a betrayal of French values.
“In France we have a social model based on aspirations that include the right to study what you choose,” he said.
He worries that universities will recruit mainly from the top of the academic pile for sought-after courses like law and psychology, leaving
youngsters from underprivileged neighbourhoods by the wayside.
It's a concern shared by Paul Guillibert, a philosophy lecturer at Nanterre.
“Universities are the last bastion of egalitarianism in this country,” the 31-year-old said, comparing the 70-odd public universities, which charge only
nominal fees for a basic degree, with the ultra-selective “grandes ecoles” which groom top executives, engineers and public servants.
Higher Education Minister Frederique Vidal has promised that weaker students will be offered catch-up classes to meet new minimum course requirements.
But in an open letter Tuesday some 400 professors said they had seen no sign of the one billion euros ($1.24 billion) she promised to fund the reforms.
The professors also blamed “drastic budget cuts” over the past decade for the falling standards.
With end-of-year exams looming and a handful of campuses still blocked by increasingly radicalised protesters, tensions are rising.
On Monday, riot police stormed Nanterre to remove a group of several dozen students who staged a sit-in, injuring at least one student and arresting seven.
On Wednesday, the head of the Sorbonne also appealed for police backup after clashes between student backers and opponents of a sit-in at a faculty in eastern Paris where a store of petrol bombs was found at the weekend.
Universities in Montpellier, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Rennes, among other cities, have also been partly or totally blocked.
The numbers mobilised so far are a drop in the ocean of the 10 million that went on strike in 1968, or the million-strong demonstrations in 1995 that
forced the rightwing government of the day to withdraw pension reforms.
But Christian Faucomprez, a veteran of the 1968 student revolt is convinced it is the start of something big.
“We were only a few hundred on the first day in 1968. It's only starting to mature,” he said.
Voicing growing public frustration with the protests, Caroline Kahn, a doctoral student in civil law, argued that a brutal selection process was already in operation.
“It's called selection by failure,” said Kahn, whose first-year lectures packed in 1,000 students — only a third of whom returned the following year.
“We are the only country in Europe where universities are not a place of excellence. It's frustrating,” said the smartly dressed 24-year-old, who spent an exchange year at Britain's Oxford University.
“To those who fear selection I'm tempted to say: Work harder!”