Report on the situation of young people

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In February 2001, France's National Economic Planning Agency issued a report containing a detailed analysis of the situation of young people in French society. It also puts forward some proposals, in particular the notion of giving all young people a 20-year initial training fund. This suggestion has fuelled debate and controversy, with social partners, family organisations, political leaders and members of the government all taking a stance on the issue.

After a drafting process lasting over two years (and some press leaks), the youth and public policy committee of the National Economic Planning Agency (Commissariat général du Plan), chaired by Dominique Charvet, published its report on Youth: a duty to ensure their future (Jeunesse, le devoir d'avenir) in late February 2001. The committee's mandate was both to evaluate the current situation of young people in France and to suggest ways of overhauling existing practices and boosting vocational and social integration among young people.

Appraisal

The authors of the report highlight the fact that a "period of youth", previously the preserve of the more well-off classes, has now extended to all strata of society. The increase in the amount of time spent in education, as well as unemployment problems and difficulties in finding a first job have resulted in a diversified and extended youth. Schools and families are now facing new pressures, with families especially facing financial problems.

In an attempt to address these pressures, public authorities have implemented a whole series of measures - in particular to tackle unemployment and stamp out youth violence and delinquency. However, there has also been some fragmentation in these - often emergency - measures, which has had a negative effect on their effectiveness and "legibility". The goals of integration, prevention and mediation have relegated the education aspect to a secondary position.

Young people are even more directly affected by economic and social changes than adults. Developments in production, job content and employment relationships, as well as the advent of the new knowledge- and information-based economy and the emergence of a mobility- and knowledge-oriented society are a reality for all young people today and for future generations.

Consequently, more than ever before, universal access to culture and knowledge as well as the creation of "skill-based value" are the fundamental issue, which the authors of the report refer to as a "shared educational responsibility".

Proposals

This "shared educational responsibility" is broken down into a series of three suggestions:

First, all young people should be given a 20-year state-guaranteed initial training fund. This fund, which extends beyond the current average education period, would provide all young people, irrespective of background, with a minimum amount of life-long training. It is designed for basic youth training but could be also used at other stages in a person's life, supplemented by additional rights acquired through periods of work. The initial state endowment and subsequent top-ups would be paid into an individual account.

This life-long education and training fund most specifically targets young people. Those in full-time education would be eligible for an allowance at least equivalent to current higher education grants. Those that opt for employment instead would be paid a salary and retain their training fund for future use. The two formulae could be combined. This individual fund is geared to providing young people with a more open choice between full-time education, a combination of work and training (including the various forms of day-release training) and intermittent training periods, irrespective of their social background and parental means.

Second, the report proposes an overhaul of youth and family assistance schemes. It advocates a break with the current family assistance system: rather than increasing the burden of supporting young people placed on families and parents and subsequently alleviating it through state financial assistance, it suggests that public assistance should be paid directly to young people over the age of 18 in an attempt to address their desire for self-sufficiency and to facilitate their financial independence.

Third, the report advocates continued reform of the education and training systems and their extension to include other parties, such as the family, with a view to providing life-long education and training. The goal of involving every young person in building their own future, is designed to enable them to contribute to building the future for young people as a whole.

Social partner reaction

The social partners participated regularly in the proceedings of the National Economic Planning Agency's youth and public policy committee, and those organisations wishing to do so were permitted to annex their comments to the committee's report. However, the publication of the report generated a great deal of comment and reaction.

The UNSA-Education teachers' trade union (formerly the Federation of National Education, Fédération de l'éducation nationale, FEN) found some aspects of its own "education project" in the committee's proposals. However it considers the proposed role of the state ill-defined, especially in terms of its commitment to providing a common core of knowledge for all (FR0101118N). The Unitary Union Federation (Fédération syndicale unitaire, FSU), which is the largest union in the public national education system, fears that the proposed universal state training funding might, in the end, challenge access to education. The CFDT, CGT and CGT-FO union confederations were essentially negative about the idea of a standard training allowance for everyone. The CFE-CGC confederation examined the report in detail and concluded that despite its shortcomings, the main merit was that it had kicked off debate on this issue.

On the employers' side, the General Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Confédération générale des petites et moyennes entreprises, CGPME) was concerned about what amounts, in its opinion, to overly simplistic criticisms levelled at the French vocational training system. CGPME considers that it is more important to strengthen existing schemes than to undertake a complete overhaul.

The National Union of Students of France - Independent and Democratic (Union Nationale des Etudiants de France - Independant et Démocratique, UNEF-ID), one of the major student unions, severely criticised the report. It commented that the Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF) employers' confederation "dreamt it up and the report put it down in black and white". In the view of this organisation, the creation of a training fund will inevitably lead to a minimal right to education. Moreover, it considers that the report's proposals will challenge the nationwide value of qualifications awarded.

The National Organisation of Family Associations (Union nationale des associations familiales, UNAF) also participated in the various stages of drafting the report. It supports the proposals on education and life-long training but has misgivings on family assistance being paid directly to young people over the age of 18. The government itself has not yet taken a definitive stance on the various proposals put forward in the report. The Minister of Youth and Sports, Marie-George Buffet, sees the idea of giving an across-the-board right to education accompanied with an independence-oriented allowance as "attractive". Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Associate Minister of Vocational Education, is more critical. He maintains that the report is based on an "outdated approach". Ségolène Royal, the Associate Minister of Family and Children, has made a commitment to making a decision on the report's proposals in June 2001. She stated that the proposed allowance is a possible option, but only as a "top-up".

Commentary

The National Economic Planning Agency report has fuelled a far-reaching debate among the social partners, family and youth associations and political leaders. It has a direct bearing on the current debate between trade unions and employers' associations over the future of vocational training, which is taking place in the context of the "industrial relations overhaul" project (FR0102134F) and in a more official context between these organisations and the Ministry concerned (FR9904172F).

The reactions of national education trade unions to the report reveal the sensitivity of staff in this sector to the notion of a comprehensive shake-up of their mandate and the means available to them.

This report, despite the detailed analysis of the situation of young people and some interesting proposals, has launched a debate that it will be unable to close down. Perhaps that is not what it set out to accomplish in the first place. (Maurice Braud, IRES)

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