Head of French university suspended in alleged scheme involving Chinese students

By Edward Cody
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

PARIS -- The president of the University of Toulon and two top aides were suspended Monday over accusations of irregularities in the admission and graduation of Chinese students allegedly ready to pay bribes for the prestige of a French diploma.

The suspension, decided by Higher Education Minister Valérie Pécresse, was an unusual public stain on France's cherished tradition of opening its largely free education system to students from around the world. It underlined some of the pressures created by a skyrocketing number of Chinese students who go abroad, sometimes unprepared, to gain the honor of having a foreign diploma in China's increasingly competitive job market.

Pécresse said the university president, Laroussi Oueslati, and two vice presidents, Pierre Sanz de Alba and Yves Lucas, were ordered to step down because they were trying to prevent an Education Ministry investigation by intimidating professors, threatening retaliation against witnesses and hiding documents that described admissions procedures. At the same time as the ministry investigation, the local prosecutor has opened a criminal inquiry to see if any laws were broken.

Ministry inspectors in September had uncovered what Pécresse said in a communique were "serious irregularities in the application of rules governing the admission of foreign students and the validation of their studies." A further report, handed to the ministry Monday, alleged that Oueslati and his aides tried to block the inquiry from finding out more about what happened, leading to the suspension.

The ministry report did not allege that Oueslati and his aides took bribes, but that the undefined irregularities were committed under their administration. They declined to comment.

France's open-armed attitude toward foreign students devolved from what the country used to call its "civilizing mission," a duty to bring learning and European culture to less advanced parts of the world. In that context, more than 260,000 foreign students are enrolled this year in French universities and other institutions of higher learning, the Foreign Ministry estimated, making up 12 percent of the student population.

As usual, more than half the foreign students came from Africa, particularly West African countries that were former French colonies and where French is widely spoken. But Asian students made up 16 percent of the total, up 8 percent from last year and part of a steady climb. A large part of that increase was due to a surge in Chinese students.

According to an the Education Ministry investigation, several University of Toulon officials were approached by Chinese middlemen who proposed paying bribes for a number of admissions and guaranteed graduations for Chinese students. Those approached told investigators they turned down the offers.

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