French universities: when autonomy rhymes with bankruptcy

French universities have undergone a transition towards financial and operational autonomy since a 2007 law was enacted to that effect. This means that the salaries of university employees are now paid directly by universities and no longer by the French State. A vast operation aiming to reduce the cost of payrolls, the move to autonomy has been tantamount to transferring financial and operational responsibilities to the universities without the necessary allocation of funds to meet the new costs.

For example, the cost of payrolls at the time of transfer was systematically underestimated. When the calculation of the level of the transfer of funds from the State to the universities was made, it did not take into account the increasing salaries from September to December of the previous year. Besides, it did not take into account the delayed financial impacts. Nor did it account for the actual costs of the social security contributions paid by the universities.

Autonomy without adequate financial support

These systematic cuts in funding even go beyond the first year of application of the law, which gave French universities so-called ‘extended responsibilities and liabilities’ (RCE: Responsabilités et Compétences Élargies). As a result of this new autonomy, the costs that universities have to cover have increased dramatically without State compensation.

Additional costs that have not been accounted for include the increase in payrolls when employees earn higher salaries due to increasing seniority and promotion—referred to as the GVT (Glissement vieillesse technicité).

Another example is the introduction of new levies after allocating their budgets such as the tax to restore the country’s financial health in 2012, which was supposedly exceptional but was then integrated into the basic payroll in 2013.

Yet another example is the recovery by the State of the “day without pay”—or “jour de carence”, an expression that means that the university does not pay an employee’s first day of sick leave— on the basis of a much higher fixed sum than the reality of the financial gain for the university, which has also been integrated into the basic payroll even though the measure, and thus the gain, has now been cancelled.

Furthermore, the Ministry pursues a social policy whose expense falls on universities: the number of grant-holders —students who do not pay any registration fees— keeps increasing, while the sum of money that is used to compensate for the non-payment of these fees does not increase. In addition, the 10th month of grant for students was funded in 2012 by the non-return of the universities’ precautionary financial reserves that were yet made available by the Ministry of Finance.

Downhill financial trend

French universities find themselves, therefore, in a very tight financial situation, forced to dip into their financial reserves to balance their budgets.

Measures of restriction keep following one after the other: staff posts are frozen; the volume of extra teaching hours is reduced; courses are closed; investment is reduced; the university properties cannot be correctly maintained; a limited intake of students is now the rule, thus going against the policy of the French academic system in which all students are supposed to have the opportunity to access the courses of their choice; budgets for research and international relations are cut.

The Ministry of Higher Education and Research also accuses French universities of not being able to manage their new autonomy: the university budgets are even wrongly presented as increasing.

The contradictions between the policy as represented by the Ministry to the media and the reality in the field create ever increasing tensions in academic communities who can no longer cope with their main tasks of teaching and researching. They have also discovered that their only autonomy consists in choosing what they are going to sacrifice.

Further, all this occurs in the context of an accelerated succession of laws that undermine the structure of the French university system without taking into account its real problems.

The general situation is extremely difficult, and the State appears, in this time of crisis, to be withdrawing their support to universities.

Anne Fraïsse

President, Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 University

Translated by Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin and Sarah Hatchuel.

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