Across France, final-year high-school students are confronting a new and disconcerting reality when it comes to university admission.
They are being ranked in a moving queue for entry to their chosen degree courses, with no guarantee of securing a place in any of them. Feelings are running high among university students, too, with some institutions forced to move end-of-year examinations to external locations or set up online assessments in response to student sit-ins and blockades. Academics have also joined in the protests against “Parcoursup" (translated roughly as “Pathway HE”), the new Ucas-style centralised university admissions platform.
The system, which replaces the old “Admissions Post-Bac” (APB) for entries from September 2018, requires candidates – the vast majority of whom are not yet in possession of their baccalauréat high-school qualification – to undergo a ranking process for university courses – including those officially designated “non-selective” – wherever demand outstrips supply.
The students’ principal bones of contention are the “statements of motivation” and teacher recommendations that, for the first time, university applicants must submit. The fear is that this will lead to discrimination against candidates on the basis of ethnicity, class or gender.
After the release of the first wave of offers on 22 May, questions have also been asked by politicians wielding statistics that appear to show higher rates of acceptance for candidates from prestigious high schools than those with equivalent dossiers from less privileged areas. Academics, on the other hand, have been angered as much by workload increases related to the processing of the new application dossiers as by the perceived challenge to the concept of the non-selective degree programme. Officially, such programmes are open to all candidates with a baccalauréat pass – even if this has not always been the case in practice.
The changes are driven by anxieties about excessively high student failure rates in France, where only 28.7 per cent of school-leavers go on to complete their first degree within three years. This anxiety was brought to a head last summer when the press exploded with stories about the increasingly widespread – although illegal, in the view of numerous French courts – use by the APB system of random selection of candidates for oversubscribed programmes.
As well as officially implementing the controversial Parcoursup platform, higher education minister Frédérique Vidal’s rapidly executed new legislation, passed on 8 March, emphasises "guidance" (“orientation”) and "student success". However, many on the ground see it as ushering in the extended use of selection in French higher education via the back door. As well as Parcoursup’s new candidate ranking system, the range of practices constituting orientation are considered ideologically suspect by some academics and policymakers, on the grounds that they could reproduce social inequalities by steering students from low-income and under-represented groups away from even applying to elite institutions and academic streams.
To outside observers, and particularly those from the Anglo-American academy, where competitive university admission is the norm, French tolerance of high failure rates and hostility towards making selection explicit can seem mysterious. I well remember how astonished I was, on my first contact with the French university system almost 30 years ago, to meet students retaking the first year of their degree for the fourth or fifth time – with little hope of succeeding. Some years later, in a junior teaching role in one large suburban campus close to Paris, I was disheartened to be told by a course convenor that I had to find a way to fail more first years because of a lack of available spaces in the second year. It is hard to see where “student success” figures in such a demoralising picture, which seems to have changed little in the intervening years.
But the French reluctance to explicitly address educational selection at the point of entry has long roots. With the recent 50th anniversary commemorations of May 1968, comparisons between then and now have been inevitable, with student anger at perceived failings in the massification of French higher education leading, in both cases, to direct action.
In the post-war period, the French university system underwent rapid growth, but investment failed to keep pace. Dissatisfaction with poor facilities and restrictive rules in student residences were among the grievances that led to 1968’s famous running battles between students and riot police. In response, education minister Edgar Faure pushed through a new higher education law, which came into force in November of that same year.
It was there that the concept of orientation began to be officially emphasised, with universities thereafter obliged to make provision for the regular review of student progress, particularly at the end of each stage of their studies. Ostensibly providing a means for the many students in difficulty to be “guided” towards alternative formative pathways, orientation’s principal utility has arguably been in allowing French politicians to sidestep the minefield of selective entry and progression in a higher education system buckling under the sheer weight of numbers and in a country still committed to the values of liberté, égalité and fraternité.
It is significant that Vidal’s recent avowed desire to end “student selection through failure within the university” was accompanied by a promise to fund at least 22,000 new university places in the most popular disciplines and institutions. Continued expansion of tertiary provision is still the best political expedient in a country where unemployment for the under-25s is 22.6 per cent, compared with 9.5 per cent for the French population as a whole. If implemented, the pledge may ultimately render the current consternation over Parcoursup much ado about nothing.
Louise Lyle is director of French studies at the University of London Institute in Paris.