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French government shrugs off ambivalent response to reform bill

The French government is congratulating itself on the reception given to its proposed university and research reforms by a top advisory panel—even though a vote on accepting its content was tied.

The draft higher education and research bill includes measures to support the creation of regional groupings of universities, and places an increased emphasis on the commercialisation of research.

In a statement on 25 February, France’s Ministry for Higher Education and Research announced that the independent National Council for Higher Education and Research had voted 20 in favour and 20 against its draft bill, with eight abstentions.

The government described the vote as the strongest show of support ever given by the council, noting that the previous government’s legislation received just 12 votes in favour and 19 against, with several council members leaving the vote in protest.

But unions and campaign groups, including the SNCS scientists’ organisation, have called for the bill to be rejected, arguing that it contains no commitments to increase funding and has not fulfilled the promise of moving on from the previous government’s reforms.

The Conference of University Presidents has accepted the draft bill “with reservations” but warned that it will not accept the “regionalisation” of higher education. A group of 11 CPU members, including the presidents of two Parisian universities, has written separately to the research minister Geneviève Fioraso to complain that the bill fails to mention the role of research organisations. The group also says that the bill has not addressed the fact that universities are still not entirely in control of their finances, despite being granted nominal independence in 2007.

The bill confirms that the research evaluation agency AERES will be replaced with the High Council for the Evaluation of Research and Higher Education. The AERES board has called this plan “incomprehensible”, “paradoxical” and “costly”, arguing that AERES has built a reliable system of evaluation in its six-year existence.

“Without any justification in the preamble of the draft bill or any supporting external evaluation, the closure of AERES could only be taken as a punishment—on the sole grounds of offering up an expiatory victim on the altar of legislative reform—which would not fool anyone,” the board said in a statement.

Despite being Fioraso’s top priority, the draft bill was published this month without any ceremony. The government made no announcement, and a special website set up to convey news about the reform was not updated.