Rich kids dominate degree block

August 4, 1995

Social differences are increasing within France's two million strong student population according to the most detailed-ever survey of French students, writes Stella Hughes.

More than ,000 students answered 150 questions in a survey which was sent to only 80,000 - an unusually high return rate. The results suggest that mass higher education is far from implying increased equality of opportunity.

"The rise in numbers in higher education goes hand in hand with greater and greater diversification of students' living and working conditions," notes the report published by the Observatoire de la Vie Etudiante, set up in 1989 by then education minister Lionel Jospin.

Social and cultural divides in society appear to be reproduced and even increased in universities as they absorb twice the number of students they had a decade earlier.

The divide is reflected both in type of course and length of study - students from working-class families are already under-represented in first-year courses where they comprise 19 per cent of the total, a figure which falls by more than half at post-masters level.

The offspring of families belonging to "top-level intellectual professions" fill two-thirds of the places in preparatory classes for the grandes ecoles, alongside less than 15 per cent from working-class families. Students from upper middle-class backgrounds make up more than a third of first-year students and almost half of post-masters students.

Nearly 58 per cent of students in literary preparatory classes have parents with higher education qualifications, while parents of 8 per cent of students in lycee-based post-baccalaureat scientific and technical courses went to university themselves.

As record numbers of school leavers get one of the various baccalaureats which are the passport to higher education, the type of "bac" which the student has is not always suited to the course chosen.

While a third of all French students entering higher education have a baccalaureat with commendation, that proportion rises to more than 80 per cent of preparatory class students for the grandes ecoles.

A higher than average number of students in Instituts Universitaires de Technologie, selective technical courses, have a commendation, while less than 30 per cent of students have commendations in law and literature courses.

These degree courses are non-selective at entry, have high failure rates at the end of the first year, offer poor job prospects, use the most replacement teachers, have the lowest course hours and highest ratio of students to staff.

The findings of the survey, which is part of the European Union's "Eurostudent" project, suggest that many of the students least able to cope with such difficulties end up on general degree courses.

The amount of work put in by students in France ranges from 33-35 hours a week in economics and law to 60 hours a week in preparatory classes.

More than two-thirds of undergraduates say they seldom or never skip classes.

The survey does not tackle the question of student income directly, but highlights the main outgoings, with rent at the top of the list and significantly higher costs in Paris than elsewhere.

Only one in four students living on a means-tested grant is satisfied with that income, compared to four out of ten in the general student population who are "satisfied" and another 40 per cent who say that their income is "acceptable".

Living conditions vary tremendously between Paris, provincial university towns and small towns with one or two university departments.

Paris is home to the sharpest contrasts. It contains the most students whose parents are top earners and the most students having to hold down full-time jobs.

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