France sifts the hard-up from the hype

A report commissioned to review the numbers of poor students reveals there are more than 20,000 living in severe poverty and thousands more who have to work to make ends meet.

The report, the second on student poverty in three months, has been submitted to the new education minister Jack Lang and the committee overseeing the new students' social plan. It was commissioned by Mr Lang's predecessor, Claude All gre, to quash claims made in February that there were 100,000 poor students, about 5 per cent of the total. The latest estimate places numbers living below the poverty line at about 23,000 - 1.3 per cent - but this low proportion is qualified by the finding that 70,000 are "forced to work".

The new report, Students in Difficulty, Poverty and Insecurity, is based on research led by Claude Grignon, sociologist and chairman of the scientific committee of the Observatory of Student Life (OVE). It used information from two inquiries carried out in 1994 and 1997, in each of which more than ,000 students were questioned about their financial circumstances.

Students' resources are difficult to measure, says the OVE report, and simply considering monthly income is insufficient - for example, four out of ten students live all or part of the year at home, where they get free services such as laundry and use of household facilities.

Indications of hardship included overdrafts, cutting expenditure and loans from family or friends, but OVE found "without doubt the most revealing" were exceptional requests for financial help from sources such as the University Solidarity Fund.

It also associates financial insecurity with students who had to work to pay their way through university. While most did not have to take regular employment, the report notes that those who did were limited in their choice of studies. "Those who must work are in practice excluded from certain of the most prestigious and restrictive courses," it states.

A study by Jean-Francis Dauriac of student welfare agency Creteil Crous, which was published in February, estimated there were 100,000 poor students.

But education ministry officials contested the number said to be below the poverty line and Mr All gre commissioned OVE's report to counter Mr Dauriac's findings.

Although Professor Grignon concluded that the proportion of poor students was "much lower than some figures - 10 per cent, or more - which have recklessly been put forward", he pointed out that "if students are rarely very poor, it is because very poor people rarely become students".

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