France’s new higher education minister has vowed to tackle the country’s 60 per cent dropout rate for undergraduates, but resisted calls to introduce more selection on entry.
In her first English-language interview, Frédérique Vidal told Times Higher Education that Emmanuel Macron’s new administration will invest about €450 million (£400 million) in reforming undergraduate degrees to reduce the enormous failure rate, following a €707 million (£630 million) increase in her department's budget this year.
Previously a molecular biologist and president of the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, Professor Vidal is the first university head in France’s history to become minister of higher education and research, reflecting Mr Macron’s desire to have experts drawn from “civil society” making up half his Cabinet.
“I had never been involved in politics…but when Emmanuel Macron launched his movement, for the first time, someone was saying what I was thinking,” she told THE in Paris.
Professor Vidal said that she accepted the ministerial position because she shared the president’s vision to “transform universities, make more links to industry and [encourage] entrepreneurship and innovation”.
Leading a ministry with an annual budget of about €24.5 billion (£22 billion) and overseeing almost 1.6 million students, Professor Vidal believes that her status as a political outsider, with no desire for promotion, will allow her to confront some of French higher education’s most deep-seated – and politically contentious – problems, which have arguably been avoided by her predecessors.
“The idea of having people from civil society – and not from politics – is that people will do things without having to think about their political career,” said Professor Vidal. “One of the main challenges for higher education is teaching and learning – we need to transform our bachelor’s-level programmes.”
As part of the €450 million investment, universities could be encouraged to offer more “major-minor” and joint degrees, which would enable students to switch subjects if they struggled in their chosen field rather than dropping out. More resources will be allocated to careers advice to ensure that students are choosing degrees suited to their interests and abilities, Professor Vidal said.
However, the reforms will not introduce more selection to French universities, which currently allow any student passing their high school baccalaureate (the equivalent of about three Cs at A level) to progress to most university courses – a system blamed by some for the country’s terrible student progression rates, overstretched lecturers and insufficient levels of student support.
“The idea is not to have selection but to better inform and help students to succeed on entry,” said Professor Vidal.
However, is this not ducking the issue? Is it naive to expect a student with a low-scoring “bac” who chooses an academically demanding programme, such as one in Professor Vidal’s own discipline of biology, to stay the course?
“If you want to do biology and do not yet have the competence, [we must ask] how we can give [students] that competence,” answered Professor Vidal.
Offering more diverse courses would allow students to stay in the university system, she explained. “When students are 18 or 19, some of them know exactly what they want to do, but others don’t – we propose to construct a bachelor’s-level [system] with more plurality,” she added, pointing out that youth unemployment is just 5.7 per cent for those with a degree but 17.9 per cent for those without one.
With Professor Vidal’s ministerial brief upgraded to include innovation, she will also be charged with leading efforts to ensure that universities work more closely with industry. It follows her highly regarded work in the French Riviera, where she brought together research centres, business schools, high-tech businesses and the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis to form the University of Côte d’Azur in 2012, a “ComUE” federation of institutions recently awarded €580 million in long-term funding from France’s latest excellence initiative.
“It is a new model of university that combines strong basic research and applied research, too,” said Professor Vidal, who added that she was pleased to see Côte d’Azur researcher Alain Brillet win France’s highest scientific accolade – the CNRS Gold Medal, awarded annually by the French National Center for Scientific Research – last month despite the applied nature of much of the university’s work.
“This [model] is possible in Nice, but not in all [regions], but each university can build their own project according to their own innovations,” she said.
On Brexit, Professor Vidal said that she was, as a scientist, “very sad” about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, adding that UK scientist friends had contacted her to express their dismay.
Could a new post-Brexit entente cordiale include a bespoke Anglo-French arrangement to allow greater interchange between UK and French researchers? Professor Vidal is, it seems, not a fan of offering privileged deals for the UK once it leaves the EU in 2019.
“If you want to [be part] of the EU, you cannot have only the advantages, not the disadvantages,” she said. “You cannot just choose only what interests you.”