France is to introduce a university pre-enrolment scheme to try to cut the failure rate by helping future students choose the right course.
The announcement coincided with a demand from university presidents for greater autonomy and increased funding, as more than 2.5 million students started the new academic year.
Francois Goulard, Minister for Higher Education and Research, said universities should be able to enrol final-year lycée pupils in the February before they sat the Baccalauréat , the school-leaving exam that entitles students to a place in higher education.
Under France's present unselective enrolment system, which leads to a 40 per cent dropout rate in the first two years, future students sign up for any course they want after receiving their exam results in summer.
Under the new voluntary scheme, universities would use school reports to assess if applicants had a good chance of success and, if not, to guide them to more appropriate studies.
Yannick Vallee, head of the Conference of University Presidents, welcomed the proposal. But last week he went further by broaching the subject of selection as part of a major rethink on the future of the universities, which he said needed greater autonomy and more funding.
He said the coming year would be crucial, with presidential and general elections in spring. "For 40 years universities have been shivering under the legacy of May 1968. Governance, study programmes and funding must evolve. We are at a turning point."
He compared the unfavourable conditions and funding of the overcrowded universities with the elite, selective grandes écoles with their classes of a maximum 30 students. France spends €6,000 (£4,100) a year educating a university student, less than half what the state spends on a grande ecole student.
Mr Vallee estimated that universities needed an extra €3 billion to function properly, and proposed a substantial rise in enrolment fees.