If teachers did not teach and students did not study, should the semester count?
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."
Protest rooted in 'commercialization' concerns
As the end of the school year approached without the government budging on the essentials of the reform, sharp divisions emerged. On many campuses, students voted to resume classes in raucous ad-hoc meetings. But diehard protestors at some schools, among them 11 Toulon University students who declared a hunger strike on Monday, refused to back down. Police were called in at several schools to separate those who wanted to continue the blockade and those who did not.
University presidents and government officials said the only alternative for many universities is to offer intensive makeup classes this summer and schedule exams for the fall. Higher Education Minister Valérie Pécresse promised on Monday that an extra month of financial aid would be available to scholarship students to cover the extra study time.
In cities across France, groups of professors and students, calling themselves the Circle of the Resolute, have held almost daily demonstrations against what they call the "commercialization" of higher education. If some students are upset at the possibility of losing a semester of study, in their view, it is the price of solidarity.
"The movement is there to defend the value of your diploma, not to destroy the semester," says Grégory Marchand, a student union leader who marched in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum last weekend. "And anyway, it's the government that's wrecking the semester."
Higher education a basic right?
But enthusiasm for a prolonged fight seemed to be flagging.
At the University of Paris X in Nanterre, on the western outskirts of the capital, students have been trying to come to a collective decision for several weeks about whether to abandon their blockade. Although 32,000 students are enrolled, only about 150 showed up for an assembly the question last week.
They straggled into an auditorium past a banner proclaiming that "the government won't back down, so we won't either." A young woman passing out leaflets for a far-left party sang the Internationale.
Inside, student union leaders accused the Sarkozy government of trying to "privatize" universities and exploit worries over final exams to split the protest movement. Boos and catcalls greeted the speakers who wanted to end the strike as well as those who wanted to continue.
At one point, Véronique Rauline, an English professor who has been on strike, took the floor to urge students to rally behind her idea of awarding a blanket passing grade to everyone enrolled at the university. "Let's force the institution," she pleaded. "But we can't do it with assemblies of 150 people, but with 1,500 people."
Higher education is considered a basic right in France. Public universities, which charge just a few hundred dollars a year in fees, accept anyone who has passed the high school baccalaureate exam. They are also regarded as a public service, much like the post office. The arguments against university autonomy are much the same as the arguments raised against privatizing the French postal service – that is, that some people might end up getting better service than others.
"They want to destroy the public sector," says Julia Aller, a freshman who is studying to be an arts promoter at the Sorbonne III University in Paris. She has been on strike for months but wants the school to give her full credit for the missed semester. "We haven't had class," she adds, "so they can't give us exams."
The chaos over exams has obscured the larger question of the future of state universities, according to many in the academic world.
Last week, 29 of the country's best-known scholars and professors published a scathing analysis that began with an admission that the value of a public university diploma was declining dramatically. "The French university is not only in crisis," the group wrote in an essay in the newspaper, Le Monde. "A number of its components are in their death throes."