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After months of strikes, university students in France ask for their grades

France's education minister: 'There will be no bachelor's degree awarded for striking, no master's for petition-signing, no doctorate in obstruction.'

By Susan SachsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 19, 2009

A student faces French riot police during a demonstration in Paris, Thursday. Student protesters have blocked or disrupted classes at universities nationwide in recent weeks over a reform championed by the conservative President Sarkozy.

Michel Euler/AP

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Paris

If teachers did not teach and students did not study, should the semester count?

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France's state universities are wrestling with that question as an especially tumultuous school year ends, with final exams and diplomas for thousands of students hanging in the balance.

Anti-government strikes all but paralyzed many state schools over the past four months, even longer than the famous student revolt of May 1968. The barricades came down in the last week most of the universities – but too late, in many cases, to reschedule all the missed courses and still keep to the normal exam schedule.

"I thought I would spend the summer looking for a job," says Elodie Parnasse, a panicked history student at the sprawling university in Nanterre, outside of Paris. "I may have to spend it doing makeup classes."

The extended strikes by faculty members and students have hit each school and each academic department differently. Some courses were unaffected and other classes met only intermittently. At blockaded universities, classes were held off-campus, online, or not at all. Some professors taught, but abandoned their regular subjects in favor of impromptu alternative lectures on life, literature, and liberty.

The chaotic semester has given rise to confusion amid an array of possible solutions.

Some striking professors want to give everyone a passing grade regardless of whether they could, or did, come to class. Others have refused to give final exams or hand out grades at all. On some campuses last week, students clashed over whether to remain on the barricades, and the government warned it would not simply write off the semester.

"There will be no bachelor's degree awarded for striking, no master's for petition-signing, no doctorate in obstruction," Education Minister Xavier Darcos announced earlier this month.

Why the strikes started

The university revolt was sparked by President Nicolas Sarkozy's project to overhaul higher education by allowing each university to directly recruit professors, decide how to spend its budget, and raise funds from private businesses.

Some of the changes were enacted two years ago as part of a broad university reform law and are set to go into effect in stages over the next few years. Others, like a new system of peer review for researchers and tougher teacher-certification standards, were introduced by government decree.

Mr. Sarkozy said the reforms were meant to stir up a bit of competition among schools and make them more efficient. But opponents saw them as an attempt to subvert the egalitarian tradition of French universities by forcing them to be profit-conscious businesses.

Some students protest while others 'do nothing'

By the time the protests hit their peak last month, 50 of the country's 83 state universities were under siege.

"At the beginning, there was no other way to say, 'we are here,' because this government doesn't listen," says Caroline Belan, a professor of English and applied languages at the University of Tours who joined the teachers' strike. "We also thought we'd open up a broad debate."

Professor Belan stopped going to the university but posted her course material online. Only 10 of her 45 students did the assignments she sent them. Others told her they were working or could not afford to keep their apartments near campus because so many of their classes had been cancelled. And some, she says, "took the opportunity to do nothing."

Final exams should have been given last month. Until now, though, school administrators and the various faculties at Tours have been unable to decide how – or if – to award credit or grades for the semester.

"We don't know what to do," says Belan, who leans toward giving all her students the equivalent of a "C" in order not to penalize anyone for the disruptions caused by the protest movement. "We're in a very complicated situation."

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