French universities overturn selection taboo

Measures taken to target high dropout rate could make universities more attractive to domestic and international students

November 7, 2017
Enemy at the drawbridge
Source: Rex

French universities are being given more powers to select their intake, in a move that observers believe could make institutions more attractive to international students and potentially lead to a more stratified, UK-style system.

Detailing reforms highlighted by higher education minister Frédérique Vidal in a Times Higher Education interview last month, Emmanuel Macron’s administration said that universities will be allowed to select which students they accept on to oversubscribed courses, replacing a lottery system described by the government as “unjust” and “dehumanising”.

Even for courses that are not oversubscribed, universities will be able to demand that applicants take a preparatory course in order to win a place. Under the current system, all high school graduates are guaranteed a place, irrespective of grades, leading to an undergraduate dropout rate of about 60 per cent.

Gilles Roussel, president of France’s Conference of University Presidents, said that the changes were a “small revolution” for France as “they introduce a kind of selection in our system”, even though universities will still lack full autonomy to choose their students.

If the reforms weed out underprepared students from the first year of undergraduate courses, they could help attract more students from abroad, he said.

“It should give the French licence [undergraduate degree] a new image for the French and for foreign students,” Professor Roussel said. Overseas students can be reassured that they will not be put into classes where students are at “very different levels”, he added.

Professor Roussel also hopes that the reforms will enable universities to compete with France’s generously funded and highly selective grandes écoles for the brightest students.

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Sebastian Stride, a higher education consultant at SIRIS Academic, said that under the current system, “if you’re a bright French 18-year-old” it is seen as a social step downwards to go to a university; instead, top students generally try to win a place at a grande école through “two years of hell”, or they go abroad.

If research-intensive universities – such as the newly reconstituted Sorbonne University – are allowed greater leeway over admission, they could attract some of these students, moving the French system in a more stratified, British direction, he said.

It is unclear whether fewer students will go to university as a result of the changes. “We don’t really know the effect of these reforms,” Professor Roussel said, as it is uncertain whether students will want to go if some have to take preparatory courses beforehand.

Catherine Paradeise, an expert on higher education policy at the University of Paris-Est, said that the changes should shift more students into vocational education, creating a “better distribution” of students between vocational and higher education.

Yet lecture theatres were so overcrowded, in part, because young people often saw few other options, she said. “Students enter universities because of the [youth] unemployment situation,” she said. “That explains a large part of the failure rate.”

Vocational education has to be improved in response, said Dr Stride, and this was likely to be next on the government’s agenda.

In her THE interview, Professor Vidal emphasised efforts that would be made to improve retention. Students will still be guaranteed a place on courses that have space.

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