Elite come before equality

November 23, 2001

Despite its 'openness', the best French higher education is tailored for the middle classes, Ruth Morse writes.

The French higher education system has never been entirely free and open but it has always aspired to be an engine of egalitarianism, a machine for social mobility.

Undergraduate numbers have practically doubled in the past 20 years, despite the recent drop in the population. From 858,000 in 1981, they reached a high of 1,466,000 in 1995 (children of the baby boom) to fall back to last year's 1,405,000.

In theory, entry to any undergraduate course depends on achieving a baccalaureate (or bac ), and overt attempts to impose substantial fees, formal selection, or a system of prerequisites have always brought out rioters and riot police. Investment has not kept pace, and fees make almost no contribution to the system's costs. This year, tuition fees hover around £200 per annum.

For the student, that fee represents further, non-academic subsidies that return more than their entire cost, and make it well worth registering (sometimes repeatedly), even if one has no intention of actually pursuing a course of study. Not least, it entitles students to eat in student restaurants, where a three-course meal costs about £1.50. Discounts include such necessities as cinema tickets, travel and entry fees to public institutions, including libraries and museums, and the right to cheap student health insurance.

But students also have to live. The most important subsidy remains parental, and most French students live at home and attend their local university or training college. Undergraduates commonly commute more than an hour in each direction every day.

For those who spend the week away from home, the rent of a tiny studio flat or, if they are lucky, one of the rare rooms in subsidised student housing, is similarly the responsibility of the student's family. Recently, the fashion for colocation has been in the news: the shared house, with its shared duties and shared costs, is on the rise.

Entry to the university system is easy, but so is exit. Although "selection" at the beginning of an undergraduate course is frowned upon, more than half the students who enter the universities fail and leave during their first year. This is called auto-sélection .

For the less family-subsidised students, the risk of failure is greater because of their need to work part-time. Implicitly, families unused to education, often poor, are less prepared to support their first-generation undergraduates, who are more likely to fail, thus reinforcing the attitudes the cheap fee is supposed to address. This is strikingly evident in the Erasmus schemes, which remit fees, but make no living allowance.

The obvious consequences of such a system must be seen in the larger social context. First, the same growth of mass education that has marked other European countries since 1945 has transformed French education as a whole: the percentage of students who leave school with a bac has risen from 5 to 85 per cent of the age cohort. National education is committed to the university's social mission to offer a democratic means of social mobility to any qualified student.

"Qualified" includes the freedom to move between disciplines: from a bac in business studies to a university course in history or the opposite.

The health disciplines (medicine, dentistry and nursing) have qualifying examinations at the end of the first, open admission year that almost all students fail, even the second or third time that they sit them. In this larger scheme, student finance is part of national welfare-state subsidies to families, not necessarily specific to the undergraduate years.

In fact, there are three levels of student subsidy. First, to schools - the best students stay on after the bac in the préparatoires , classes to prepare for the variety of examinations that control entry to the grandes écoles , the ferociously selective establishments above the free and democratic universities.

Those two highly competitive pre-competition years - many students are asked to leave at the end of the first one - count as the equivalent of the universities' first diploma and are generously subsidised by the state, which spends twice as much per student in the prépas as it spends on a student doing the first two years at university.

Second, the small percentage of students who achieve entry to the elite establishments are, in many cases, considered already to have entered public service and are salaried.

Third, for the masses of students in the universities, there are a few means-tested scholarships that theoretically rise as high as £2,400 plus remission of tuition fees, paid over the nine-month academic year. Further aid, through the still-active welfare state, also buttresses the student's family, especially where there are more than two children. But Byzantine bureaucratic procedures further discourage applications, and as there is no tutorial system, there is no advice on how or when to apply. Everyone complains, including the government ministries and, recently, the new mayor of Paris.

The effect is depressing. Middle-class children in full-time education succeed at a higher rate than do the children of the poor or of immigrant families. Mature students or part-time students struggle to study and make ends meet.

Many students find themselves repeating whole years of the same course or, with increasing despair, a different one. But the state, constrained by custom, finds no way to make the language of entitlement meet the reality of exclusion.

Ruth Morse lectures in English at the University of Paris VII.

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