FRANCE: In a new series, The THES studies the pattern of student choice in Europe
French university students are forsaking science in favour of more fashionable courses such as psychology and sports studies, a development that education minister Claude Allegre and university presidents fear threatens the future of French research.
Science enrolments at university have been dropping since the mid-1990s, with the number of people taking a scientific DEUG (diplome d'etudes universitaires generales, the initial two-year degree course) falling from 150,000 in 1995 to 1,000 in 1999. Some universities experienced a 25 per cent fall.
Francine Demichel, director of higher education at the ministry of education, says several factors have combined to deter young people from choosing science.
For a long time, many DEUG courses were badly supervised and overcrowded. The best students could take the intensive preparatory classes that groom candidates for the competitive exams for entry to the elite grandes ecoles, in which science enrolments remain high.
But mainstream science students now increasingly enrol at university institutes of technology (IUT), which offer two-year professionally oriented courses with a technological approach - and smaller classes. "When students have their IUT qualification,
they often go on to university to take their licence ," said Mrs Demichel.
Aversion to sciences is apparent lower down the education chain. "In four years, the number of lycee pupils choosing a scientific course will have fallen by 33 per cent," Mr Allegre said last year. Reflecting his concern, nearly half of lycee students questioned in a survey carried out by Mrs Demichel's directorate believed that scientific studies were "too abstract" with "too much maths".
Courses most in demand in higher education include psychology, sports studies, media studies, information and communications, law, fine arts and performing arts.
Since 1984, universities have had to provide courses that fit students' demands, rather than devise studies that take into account the needs of employers or of society.
Mr Allegre and university authorities are worried about the drop in the number of students undertaking scientific studies, and especially its effects on the future of French research.
Attempts to reverse the trend include a pilot scheme at six universities that emphasise teaching in small groups, the use of tutorials and the introduction of new technologies.
Modernisation of the university curriculum is another necessity. "The first year of the science DEUG is not very adapted to students' expectations or to scientific needs," Mrs Demichel said. A commission is being set up to investigate what changes need to be made.