Unions and students have launched strikes and erected blockades on French campuses in protest against reforms of France’s high school baccalaureate, which they fear will lead to increased selectivity in the university system.
The national qualification, the normal requirement for university entry, was a target of Emmanuel Macron during his election campaign, with the president claiming that it failed to prepare young people for university and the job market.
Under changes announced last week, students would specialise earlier, choosing two major and two minor subjects, in a bid to better prepare them for degree study, but opponents see the baccalaureate reforms as potentially disadvantageous to poorer students.
Annliese Nef, a spokeswoman for the National Union of Higher Education (SNESUP) and a historian at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University – Paris 1, argued that the reforms were designed to make French higher education more selective and, thus, to avoid the need to provide more funding to cope with a demographic bulge in student numbers.
Another union concern is that the changes will disadvantage poor students because, as not every baccalaureate option will be available in every high school, some students could be shut out of certain degree courses. “It’s social selection in reality,” she said.
One advantage of the current national, broad-based baccalaureate system is that it gives, theoretically at least, every student the chance to study “whatever you want” at university, Dr Nef said. However, if students must specialise at an early age, this could disadvantage less privileged young people.
“At 14, 15, you don’t know – your family won’t know – how it works,” and this lack of awareness could mean that some miss out on the opportunity to pursue certain degrees, she said.
At the core of the argument is whether France’s school-to-university transition is up to scratch. The government argues that poor specialisation at high school and the inability to select students leads to a higher education dropout rate of about 60 per cent.
But Dr Nef argued that the system was not “that bad”. Data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – albeit from 2011 – show that the completion rate for French students is actually 80 per cent, one of the best in Europe and only 2 percentage points behind the highly specialised and selective system of the UK.
The six in 10 students who “drop out” according to the statistics normally continue with another subject and go on to graduate, Dr Nef pointed out. “You can’t know what you want to do at such a young age, so it’s better to have a right to choose English for a semester and find your way [academically], than [to have to] choose one thing and then drop out [because there is no flexibility to change course],” she said.
Last November, the government announced plans to give universities more power to select students and require that they attend preparatory courses before starting a course.