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French research groups up in arms as Macron proposes €331M cut to 2017 budget

Macron's promise to ring fence university funding did not last two months, says the National Union of Higher Education

Emmanuel Macron speaking at LE WEB conference in 2014
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Research groups in France have reacted angrily to a proposal by the government to trim this year’s budget for research and higher education by €331 million, as new president Emmanuel Macron moves to cut the deficit and avoid exceeding the EU limit of 3 per cent of gross domestic product for the 10th consecutive year in 2017.

As a candidate Macron promised to ring fence the budgets of higher education and research and the announcement of cuts prompted strong criticism from student and professor unions, which argue the education system is already overstretched.

“Macron's promise to protect university funding did not last two months,” said the National Union of Higher Education, the main union representing higher education professionals. “In the context of strong student enrollment figures, such decisions are irresponsible.”

The proposed cuts, which would hit agriculture, energy, space and industrial research, send a confusing signal after the research-friendly Macron campaign, the union added. “If this government believes that research and the youth of this country are not priorities, let [Macron] say so.”

The Conference of University Presidents issued a statement to say it had neither been consulted nor informed about the “incomprehensible” cuts.

“The loss is the equivalent to the annual remuneration of 5,500 researchers,” said Valerie Rabault, a politician with the socialist party.  

Inherited a budget mess

A spokesman for the higher education, research and innovation ministry, which has a €23.85 billion budget, said the government, “Inherited a budgetary situation that called for a global effort, in order to establish a sounder, more reliable budget. The ministry for higher education, research and innovation takes its part, as do the other [ministries].”

The cuts to research are spread across different ministries, with the higher education, research and innovation ministry facing a €180 million cut.

While this represents a small share of the overall higher education budget, researchers say the loss would be felt in a sector that is suffering from a lack of resources.

In June, the Court of Auditors reported the finances of nine universities are in a "degraded” state, with a further six institutions are in a "very degraded" state.

The mood amongst researchers could not be more different from back in May when Macron was elected. The scientific establishment was mightily relieved to see him swept to victory, with 66 percent of the vote to Front National Marine Le Pen’s 33 per cent.

“It was a choice between the decent and the horrible,” said physicist Édouard Brézin, a former president of the French Academy of Sciences. “Thank God decent won.”

Then there was a sense of optimism. “I think he knows and understands the problems facing French higher education and research better than any French president in the last decades, and probably better than almost any other current French politician,” said Jean-Marc Schlenker, a mathematician at the University of Luxembourg.

Macron was frank about how France could gain from the divisive policies of President Donald Trump, and fallout from the UK leaving the EU, saying, “The policies of Donald Trump and Brexit send negative signals to the world of research and innovation, and this is unfortunate. France must see opportunities here to become the world leader in research on global warming and environmental transition.”

This would include providing fast-track visas for foreign climate experts, the president-elect pledged in his online election programme.

Macron’s bid to lure American climate scientists to France, appealing for scientists to come and help “make our planet great again”, captured the attention of the science world.

In addition, Macron promised more funding for basic research, particularly the National Research Agency.

“Success rates to the agency had become so small it was almost meaningless, so I’m glad this is getting attention,” said Brézin.

A promise to further modernise the education system by letting universities hire lecturers and researchers without having to wait for the central administration in Paris to approve appointments and to give universities “more latitude” in awarding bonuses to scientists, did not meet with universal approval, however.

Honeymoon over

The furore over spending is a major early test for Macron, who aims to make cuts of €60 billion by 2022. A very public disagreement over the cuts prompted the resignation of the head of France’s military, Pierre de Villiers, on Wednesday. Macron made a campaign pledge to increase military spending to 2 per cent of GDP, in line with NATO targets. In the event, the military budget will be cut by €850 million.

News of the cuts to the higher education budget comes as the government begins reforming the dysfunctional system for registering new university students, which is struggling to absorb a growing number of enrollments, with nearly 87,000 candidates still waiting for a place.

"A huge mess," is how the minister of higher education Frédérique Vidal described the situation on Monday.

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Related subjects: France, Research funding