PARIS (Reuters) - France announced a one-billion-euro plan for universities on Monday, promising to offer more places on popular courses, cut drop-out rates and build more accommodation, in a bid to assuage the concerns of politically powerful students.
President Emmanuel Macron's government has already faced down street protests over labour reform and risks more industrial action over plans to reform the pension and unemployment insurance systems.
It wants to avoid confrontation with students who have forced past governments into policy u-turns with protracted rallies. The government said the 1 billion euros ($1.16 billion) will be spent over the five years of Macron's term in office.
Students in France who pass high school exams have the right to go to university in their home area. But this has led to popular subjects such as law and psychology being heavily oversubscribed and prompted the introduction of an unpopular lottery system where demand is highest.
That lottery system will now be scrapped and the most pressed universities will be allowed to select students on merit. The proposal stops short of a blanket UK-style selection system that student unions had opposed.
France's biggest student union, the moderate Fage, welcomed the plan. Two other unions, including the left-wing Unef, the second largest, were critical.
Unef has said it will join CGT-led protests against government reforms on Nov.16 and urged students to "make their voice heard" against the education reform.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, has also urged students to mobilise after his early attempts to get workers onto the streets against the easing of unemployment laws failed.
Macron "has got the advantage for now, let's not hide it," Melenchon told franceinfo radio. "If youths got moving, things would be different, but it's not the case for now."
The reforms also include 60,000 new student housing units over the next five years and promise to scrap student's social security contributions and increase tutoring.
Only 40 percent of students complete the first year of university, the government said.
"Our aim is to ensure equal opportunities," said University Minister Frederique Vidal. "We want to make university more accessible by accompanying students, in all their diversity."
(Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Ingrid Melander; Editing by Richard Lough and Andrew Heavens)