One in five students who enrol in French higher education quit without qualifying, according to Ove, the National Observatory of Student Life. The organisation says these thousands of young people without a university diploma or degree have "escaped investigation" but now it has decided to fill the research gap and find out why they gave up their studies and how they fared afterwards.
Ove is best known for its large-scale national surveys carried out every three years since 1994 into living and working conditions of students from all French universities and other higher education institutions. For its report, Sortir sans diplôme de l'université (Leaving without a university diploma), researchers in Dijon, Rennes, Caen and Marne-la-Vallée near Paris questioned 60 'dropouts' who had left university without qualifications and had not re-enrolled for at least another year.
Latest findings of the Centre for Studies and Research on Qualifications, Céreq, show that 20% of students who enrolled in higher education abandoned their studies, a total of nearly 75,000 individuals.
The researchers found a "diversity of experiences" indicating that giving up was rarely sudden. In fact between the moment when students entered university and when they permanently abandoned their studies without getting their diploma months or even years could elapse.
All those surveyed had passed their baccalauréat and entered higher education, leaving without qualifications between the academic years 2002-3 and 2005-6. Twenty-five spent a maximum of a year at university, 19 left after two years and 16 after three or more years.
The report identified several factors:
* Enrolment in the 'wrong' course. Two kinds of student had chosen inappropriate studies: first, those who had received a normal school education, been good or average pupils and chosen their university course because they were interested in a given subject, or at the last minute after hesitating between several courses, but they lacked guidance about course content and career possibilities.
Education of the second group had been more 'chaotic' and they had experienced difficulties and switched options at school. Though they seemed better informed about their courses, they had often enrolled at university by default because they had failed to get a place in a selective institution, said the report.
* Students failed to adapt to new methods of working. Methods that succeeded at school did not suit university studies, with less rigorous timetables, less supervision and need for more self-discipline. Several respondents regarded the apparent freedom of university as a 'trap'. Some were discouraged by study requirements such as revision, preparation for examinations and carrying out research, and failed to summon up the necessary resources or motivation, said the report.
* Outside activities competed with studies. All the young people questioned had other interests, such as sports, culture and paid employment which had greatly increased during the past 30 years, often because students needed the money but also because it gave them a sense of independence and, when exam failure loomed, an opportunity to escape. Other problems such as family or health could also have an effect.
Once they had dropped out, said the report, the unqualified ex-students were faced with a broad choice between returning to some kind of education and finding a more or less steady job.
About 20 of the young people surveyed were still "looking for a project and trying different jobs without real motivation, just to 'survive' or respond to strong family pressure". They experienced recurring unemployment, unable to see a way out having failed in both studies and work, said the report.
But not all was negative; their comparative youth made them look forward with optimism to taking on short-term projects, travelling abroad or resuming their education. "They think they still have many doors to open."
The priority for about half the respondents was to find a job that would lead to a career, with training if necessary. They were not motivated to take work for reasons of stability or financial independence, but because they wanted to enter a particular profession in a social, cultural or sporting field that interested them.
Many who had ended up at university by default decided to try reverting to their original career plans. For this they might need to resume their education and alternating work with studies seemed the best course, said the report. Strategies could include taking a low-level job then a related vocational course, or upgrading qualifications through validation of skills acquired at work.
The other young people questioned wanted steady employment giving them financial independence, in some cases so they could devote the rest of their time to pursuing a cultural or sporting interest.
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