THE Europe Teaching Rankings 2019: lifelong learning

French universities must adapt teaching strategy to ensure future success, says Marie-Céline Daniel

July 3, 2019
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In the past 50 years, the number of students in France has multiplied by eight. The fact that more than three-quarters of a generation should be able to pass the baccalauréat qualification at the end of high school means that a greater number of students now make it to higher education. This had been a clear priority for most governments since the 1960s, and each year the authorities welcome the new broken record of success rates at the exam.

The baby boom that occurred at the turn of the 21st century also means that France has been facing an unprecedented number of newcomers to higher education in the past two years. Of course, what may be construed as good news for the country’s demography has become a challenge for French higher education institutions, which say they cannot accommodate these new cohorts.

All of these issues are serious, and no one will complain that more young people are reaching higher education. However, the huge increase in the number of students has not translated to comparable success rates. Put simply, there are many more students enrolling in the first year, but a much lower proportion of them progressing into the second year. The dropout rate has increased accordingly.

Inequality also remains a significant issue when it comes to access to higher education. Students’ success rates are still strongly correlated to their parents’ occupations and income levels. Despite universities’ efforts to mend these gaps and their strategies to help and support under-represented groups, success rates at the bachelor’s and master’s levels remain insufficient. Unfortunately, the government will not increase university funding substantially any time soon, and the student-to-teacher ratio will not improve drastically; even if it did, most universities would not be able to accommodate these new groups. So solutions need to be found elsewhere.

Curiously, in this context, few institutions look towards lifelong learning as a way to address these issues. This is all the more surprising as lifelong learning has become a key concept in the strategic plans of most French higher education institutions. For decades, it had been seen as a sort of miraculous cash cow that would boost these institutions’ budgets. Now lifelong learning has become a new vision of higher education, seen as a continuum of education and training from the immediate post-baccalauréat years to mature professional life.

Like continuing education, lifelong learning meets the challenges of careers that will be more mutable in the future, and the need for workers to adapt their skills. Yet, contrary to continuing education, it impacts the construction of the initial training curricula, with an increased share of blended learning. If universities want to become key players in this new scene, they will have to become more flexible in the curricula they offer.

Why should they do this? Because it is unacceptable that so many students drop out of university. It is a waste of energy, hope and resources. It has now become a major challenge for French universities, and this is something that lifelong learning may significantly improve.

Universities should indeed conceive of lifelong learning as a way to diminish the pressure on incoming students. By spreading out courses and programmes over a longer period, universities are more likely to secure the success of their cohorts. Enabling students to stay for a bachelor’s, while guaranteeing a right to come back to the institution a few years later would reduce the risk of dropping out. Students could take what they can or want, then start a career if they wish to, and return to their alma mater to develop new skills, online or on campus.

Lifelong learning may also be a way to mend the “do or die” situation in which most students find themselves today. Even successful students may leave universities without a degree. Such is the case of young entrepreneurs; developing a start-up takes energy and, even when they are supported by their university, students may lack time. In that case, they will often prefer to leave and focus on their project. With lifelong learning, it becomes possible to suspend rather than stop. For students, it means security for the future, and for universities the possibility of following students over a longer period, and facilitating the transition to alumni status.

So lifelong learning should become the standard for university curricula. It will enable universities to offer education that will be better adapted to new careers, as well as become unavoidable actors of the social and economic worlds.

Marie-Céline Daniel is vice-president of education and lifelong learning at Sorbonne University 

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