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French scientists protest against research bill

Posted on behalf of  Barbara Casassus.

A number of higher-education unions and the campaign group Let’s Save Research called a strike today demanding withdrawal of a bill, adopted yesterday by the French cabinet, to reform higher education and research.

The bill is aimed to remedy flaws in a 2007 law (loi relative aux libertés et responsabilités des universités; LRU), but has been described by the protestors as being more of the same. “As in Quebec, Great Britain and Chile, French universities are being deliberately driven to bankruptcy by laws,” they said in a joint statement.

A group of anonymous academy rectors also denounced the bill in an op-ed published on the website of L’Express magazine, saying that the law represented a “race to the bottom” and would turn universities into “ships adrift at sea”.

The bill, which will be presented to parliament on 27 May and should become law by the end of July, has two main priorities, higher-education and research minister Geneviève Fioraso told the cabinet. They are: to raise the student success rate, and to simplify the higher-education and research landscape — which includes research agencies, institutes and universities — and foster cooperation rather than competition between different institutions.

Although the pledge to create 1,000 posts annually during President François Hollande’s five-year term is maintained in the bill, Fioraso acknowledges that France’s huge budget deficit “does not allow [the government] to respond immediately to universities’ preoccupations” with funding since they obtained autonomy under the 2007 law.

The 20-measure bill replaces three advisory bodies with a strategic council for research, which would be chaired by the prime minister and would steer more operating funds away from National Research Agency projects and towards labs for basic research to help ease the annual scramble for cash.

It would replace the much-criticized evaluation agency AERES by a High Council for the Evaluation of Research and Higher Education, which would ovesee “rigorous” self-evaluation and conduct evaluation itself only on request. It would also replace the 26 PRES clusters of research agencies, universities and grandes écoles with about 30 regional “communities” with a wider reach, and would foster technology transfer for innovative and exportable products, with a target for this year of creating about 100.

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