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The troubles with French universities laid bare

Oliver Gee · 9 Oct 2015, 13:11

Published: 09 Oct 2015 13:11 GMT+02:00
Updated: 09 Oct 2015 13:11 GMT+02:00

The French university system has made headlines in France this term after a massive influx in students saw the government scramble to invest €100m to try to prop up the creaking higher education system. 
 
But does the problem run deeper? The Local speaks with students, professors, and education experts to find out what exactly is going wrong with France's once famous university system.  
 
1: Student influx
 
An extra 65,000 students began courses this term in French universities, with a student blog showing pictures of their overflowing lecture halls quickly going viral last month. 
 
Lex Paulson, a professor of Rhetoric and Human Rights at Sciences Po, says he has seen students sleeping at the desks in the library to save a place, estimating that around 1,500 students fight for 300 seats.
 
And while the attention might make it sound like a new problem, Matthew Fraser, a professor at the American University of Paris and a lecturer at the French university Sciences Po, argues that it has been an issue for years.
 
"The overcrowding issue is not new," he tells The Local. 
 
"I was a graduate student at the Sorbonne-Pantheon 25 years ago and students were complaining about lecture theatres bursting at the seams, students sitting on the floor in the aisles taking notes, filthy hallways, and generally appalling conditions at this so-called prestigious university."
 
While it may be an old story, Prime Minister Manuel Valls suggested that this term's load was particularly heavy, with a 2.8 percent increase in students compared to the 1-2 percent hike each year since 2012.
 
 
2: Lack of funding
 
France has been lagging behind in education expenditure for years, says Ellie Bothwell, a reporter at the World University Rankings.
 
"Research and development expenditure in France was last measured at 2.26 percent of France's gross domestic product in 2012, according to the World Bank, which is lower than many of the richer nations of Europe," she tells The Local.
 
"While the French government has improved the country’s higher education system in recent years, giving universities greater autonomy in funding and encouraging institutions to spawn off their own research-led business operations and seek partnerships with industry, it must invest more in universities if it is to compete with its neighbouring countries of Germany and the Netherlands."
 
The good news is that the government announced in September an injection of €100 million for education in the 2016 budget.
 
Thierry Mandon, who was appointed in June to be the Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research, told the L'Express newspaper that the injection showed that the quality of higher education was "crucial" to the future of France.
 
But representatives from the UNEF student union weren't impressed with the government plan, saying that once the cash had been shared among 100 or so institutions, it wouldn't even cover staff payrolls, reported 20 Minutes.
 
Students at some universities, such as Bordeaux 3, have complained that a lack of funding has seen renovation projects on "old and run down" buildings stopped midway.
 
 
3: Tarnished reputation
 
When it comes to global reputation French institutions have suffered in the rankings. In the 2014 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, there were only two French universities in the top 100.
 
For Chris Parr from the Times Higher Education France should see this as "worrying." 
 
"For a country with a great reputation in so many sectors this should sound alarm bells," he told The Local at the time.
 
It's not just global academics who are not impressed with French universities.
 
Exchange students have also given France's system the thumbs down, with one recent survey finding France finishing last in Europe as an exchange destination for students. 
 
Students complained about bureaucracy, overlapping schedules, and timetables that appeared to be designed to suit the university rather than the students. France's exchange students, on the other hand, were among the most positive about being outside of their usual lecture halls.
 
 
4: Elitism
 
Matthew Fraser from the American University of Paris says that the biggest problem with French universities is the elitism and the "incestuous recruiting" of graduates among the political and corporate elites. 
 
"It's an insidious culture of social reproduction that blocks entry of the brightest and best from the non-elite schools," he says, adding that it creates a system to "reward the 'happy few' and reject everyone else".
 
"Those in the latter category are starting to leave France for Britain and the US because they know they will never have opportunities in France. That creates a brain drain. And what you have left is the same old elites in France — bureaucrats, politicians, and corporate leaders who have all been to the same schools." 
 
"Look at President Francois Hollande's entourage, it’s the usual suspects of Sciences Po and ENA graduates. He himself graduated from those two schools, plus HEC. He did a Grandes Ecoles hat trick. It doesn’t set a very good example when French leaders are all cut from the same cloth."
 
Around 5 percent of French university students study at France's elite Grandes Ecoles.
 
5. Lack of coherence, supervision 
 
Lex Paulson from Sciences Po adds that many students suffer further from a jumbled system and an "insane" workload. 
 
"Students feel that they're being told the sky is green on Tuesday, then that it's purple on Wednesday," he tells The Local. 
 
"There's no coherence between classes, very little supervision, and no administrators keeping an eye on it all."
 
Others claim the marking system is also a problem.
 
Aurélie Evain, a 24-year-old French woman who studied at Bordeaux 3, tells The Local: "The way that the teachers mark our work is not fair or consistent." 
 
"Scores are given out of 20 but the highest they ever give is 16. The problem is that because the teachers have too many students to manage, the lessons are unorganised and the marking is rushed and not done in a consistent way. The system is the problem, it’s not the teachers fault."
 
 
A look at France's legion of foreign students
(Photo: AFP)
 
6. Too easy to get in and too easy to drop out
 
Unlike the higher education courses in the US, which are "tough to get into and tough to get out of", France is the exact opposite, argues Lex Paulson from Sciences Po.
 
"Something like a third of French students don't make it through their first year," he says.
 
"Americans treat it like a paid service - if you pay, you get a degree. In France, where it's essentially free access, you're paid for by the state and so it's you who owes the state rather than the other way around. It's a different kind of bargain."
 
Which leads us to...
 
7. No cost = no expectations
 
The French university system is often praised from the outside thanks to the fact that the vast majority of students never need to take a loan to pay off their small fees. 
 
But that doesn't mean the system is perfect, argues Lex Paulson from Sciences Po.
 
"You don't want it to be like the US when it comes to financing where students come out with crippling burdens of debt," he says. 
 
"But there needs to be a happy medium, perhaps more like the UK or Germany, where it's not so expensive and not free. If that were the case then students might have more right to expect good service in return."
Story continues below…
 
How to survive Paris on a student budget

8. Lack of transparency in enrolling

Thierry Mandon, the Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research, says that there needs to be more clarity for students when it comes to choosing a course. 
 
"Many students are enrolling blindly with no idea of their chances of getting in," he told L'Express. 
 
He said that from 2016, there would be more "active guidance" where students could learn more about their courses, including how many graduates were typically employed in their fields and what salaries they could expect.
 
The need for a change was highlighted this term by the fact that 13,999 students applied for a law course at Paris I in competition for just 725 places.
 
With this particular statistic in mind, Mandon added plans for teacher "re-balancing" from next year to reflect demand.
 
9. Lack of global outlook
 
French universities took a long time to think globally and have suffered as a result.
 
Disputed reforms that passed in 2013 finally allowed French public universities to teach more classes in English, but it was already behind the curve. Universities in other countries, particularly Asia, have long been hosting courses in English to attract the best international students.
 
French universities also suffer because not much research is published in English.
 
Phil Baty, the editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, told The Local previously that France's global outlook is furthermore hit by a poor international branding effort. 
 
"There's a general lack of knowledge around the world of the French system, a lack of profile and reputation," he said.
 
"It's a fairly complex system and it’s seen as a branch of the civil service."
 

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