Student vanguard faces British barricade

March 15, 1996

A pioneering group of 16 first and second-year students on a degree course with a British university have become a total anomaly by studying entirely outside the country.

The students are taking a University of London degree in French studies at the British Institute in Paris, the only part of the British university system located in continental Europe.

Along with institute staff, they are battling for the right to mandatory grants from their local authorities and free tuition, both of which the Department for Education and Employment says they fail to qualify for by studying outside Britain.

"This is discrimination. Yet by completing an honours degree in three years instead of the usual four for a language degree, they would be saving money for the state," said institute director Christophe Campos.

The students feel unfairly penalised and are bombarding Education Secretary Gillian Shephard, Prime Minister John Major and their local councils with letters.

With fees set at Pounds 2,100 a year and living expenses at least as much again, the course is forced into selection by means of support.

When the course began two years ago, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service handbook did not make the financial situation clear and the institute had 135 applicants. Even when the grim truth was spelled out in the last UCAS handbook, 80 candidates applied.

Of the 30 applicants offered places, four or five withdrew for financial reasons, 11 have begun the course and the remainder failed to gain the A levels required. "Without the fee problem, we would have hundreds of applicants," Mr Campos said. "Our degree is different. It will produce a core of trained people who are a cultivated bi-national elite, an asset for Britain's civil service and industry."

The first two intakes certainly have goals that reflect the purpose of the course. Most want to enter the Foreign Office or stay on for the institute's professional diploma leading to a career as an international interpreter and translator.

Mr Campos said undergraduates are taught almost entirely in French and by their second year are as well developed intellectually and a little more knowledgeable about France than the third-year British students who come to the institute during their year abroad.

The students are a tight-knit group enjoying Paris and the attention that appears to be the main advantage of their pioneer position.

"All my friends from Britain are envious of the close teaching we get here," said Vanessa Barton, one of the five second-year students. "There are so few of us, though, you can't sneak in late - anything like that is very noticeable".

First-year Alice Cherry agreed that the small size was an advantage: "The teachers are very approachable. If there are any problems, they will call us at home."

Senior lecturer Michael Sadler believes the high number of contact hours and close supervision is an advantage as British universities get more crowded. "I do think they get more attention here. But they are also out of the protected university world. They have to find flats and Paris can be aggressive."

"We definitely miss out on university campus life. There is no comparison with the life students in Britain lead - I think we work ten times as hard!" said student Anna Soden.

"We provide an intellectual and social structure, but remain very French about this - the institute is not a youth club, the students don't get distracted by sport," commented Mr Campos.

The students do not just work hard on the course, most also have part-time jobs. Hannah Collings, whose ten-hours-a-week job helps pay the fees, said: "I was an au pair and just finding my feet here at the end of the year. So when I found out about the course, I applied and gave up my place at Exeter to stay here."

Those students who opt for Paris are hooked on the city. Many of the students had already come to Paris after A levels, with a deferred place at a British university, to work for a year or do a course at the institute.

Chris Turner came during his year out and switched to the institute course when he found out about it. "You get more experience this way. A British campus is isolated, there is no incentive to get out," he argued.

A link with a French university is one way to solve the fee problem and allow the French degree course to grow to an intake of about 30. Mr Campos said the institute was thinking of starting French business studies which could be a joint course shared with "science-po", the Paris school of political science.

Much depends on the attitude of the DFEE. If it does not change its position, the British Institute and the University of London may find themselves having to rethink the implications of having introduced fee-paying - albeit inadvertently - into the British university system.

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