French university admissions reform ‘has cut dropout rate’

Taboo-breaking Parcoursup reforms in 2018 are seen to have reduced failure rates, but there are fears Parisian universities will now hoover up the best students nationwide 

六月 14, 2020
Students hold banners reading "I passed my high school diploma (Baccalaureat or Bac in French), I get to choose my university" and "Stop widening inequalities" during a demonstration march at Place Saint-Michel, Paris, France, on December 11, 2018
Source: Getty
Liberté, inégalité, fraternité: some are concerned Parcoursup widens the gap between students from different backgrounds

It has now been two years since France overturned one of its most sacred higher education principles.

In 2018, Emmanuel Macron’s government finally allowed French public universities some measure of selection over which applicants they would admit – replacing a system where high-school leavers had a theoretically equal shot at entry, with success or failure in some cases determined by lottery.

The aim was to improve the dismal dropout rates of first-year undergraduates by better matching youngsters to suitable courses.

Now, as hundreds of thousands of high-school leavers once again pick a university through the new system – called Parcoursup – there are enough data to make an early assessment of how it has transformed French higher education.

“I think we’ve got encouraging results,” said Ellen Thompson, head of mission for the transition of youngsters to higher education at France’s Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation.

After Parcoursup was introduced in the 2018-19 academic year, 47.5 per cent of admitted undergraduates went on to pass their first year.

This might still sound like a huge attrition rate − and it is − but it is a marked improvement on the 40 per cent success rate of the previous year (a “horrendous” level of failure, Ms Thompson said).

Failing the first year in France does not necessarily mean students drop out for good. They might pass on their second go or find success after transferring to a more suitable course. But the rate of failure was seen by critics as wasteful and demoralising.

Prior to the reforms, “kids would go into a psychology degree, having done a literary baccalaureate [at high school], and think: ‘I’ve done literature, so I can go and do psychology, I don’t need maths,’” she said.

To counter this, the Parcoursup platform tells potential applicants the subjects that previous successful students have studied and what the universities expected of them.

At the Sorbonne University in Paris, “we’ve had better students on the whole; students who know better why they are coming to us”, explained Marie-Céline Daniel, vice-president for lifelong learning. There has been a “serious increase” in success rates of first years, she said.

The dropout rate of students at Cergy-Pontoise University, based just outside Paris, has reduced by about 10 per cent, estimated president François Germinet. “But it is only the beginning,” he said, adding that he hopes to halve dropouts in the next five years by developing new curricula for students who normally fail.

Another aim of Parcoursup was to allow students to circulate more freely around France, breaking down at least some of the rules that stopped youngsters attending universities outside their locality. This was a particular bugbear in the Île-de-France region, where youngsters from suburbs outside Paris, “living just the other side of the road”, were blocked from attending universities in the capital, explained Ms Thompson. Around Paris, these restrictions have now been completely dismantled.

The result is that in the first year of the new system, about 12 per cent more students accepted offers in universities outside their localities. Student mobility is still nowhere near that of the UK, she acknowledged, but it has meant an extra 13,000 students now studying away from home.

This might sound progressive, but there is a flip side. More selection and more mobility mean that Parisian universities can hoover up the best students from across the country, leading to fears of increased clustering by social class.

At the nearby University of Versailles, “we have seen a big decrease in quality [of students]”, said Martin Andler, an emeritus professor at the institution and higher education policy expert. “Definitely there’s a change.”

A spokesman for Versailles acknowledged that since mobility barriers were removed, some local high-school leavers with “excellent marks” have chosen to head to the capital instead. But it is still too early to tell what the impact is, and “very reductive” to say that students are not as good as they used to be, he said.

One problem is that students with good results “tend to come from upper socio-cultural environments”, said Sebastian Stride, higher education consultant at SIRIS Academic.

The ministry has not yet run a comprehensive analysis to see whether students from rich families are increasingly clustering at certain universities, but Ms Thompson pointed out that Parcoursup bumps up students from poorer families to make sure each course hits negotiated quotas on the background of students.

One thing is clear, observers told THE: for French youngsters, Parcoursup has focused attention like never before on their choice of course and university.

And for Dr Stride, newfound selectivity has boosted the “perception” of public universities, placing them on an “equal footing” with the path to a grand école – France’s hyper-selective breeding grounds for the country’s elite, whose existence, critics argue, made a mockery of claims of egalitarianism prior to Parcoursup.



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Reader's comments (1)

We really are in "Pope is a Catholic" territory here. It seems plain that if you have selective entry, then more students will pass.