FRANCE: University selection through high failure rate

Nearly half of French university students fail to complete their first year of studies successfully and about 90,000 leave every year without a qualification.

Valérie Pécresse is the latest Higher Education Minister to announce plans to cut the failure rate, following efforts by her predecessors since university expansion began some 30 years ago. Today, France’s 85 universities cater for nearly 1.5 million students, double the number 25 years ago.

The universities are poor relations in a higher education system which dates back to Napoleon and favours the grandes écoles – selective, well-funded schools designed to train an elite and educating only 5% of the student population.

In contrast, entry to university is non-selective, open to all applicants who have passed the school-leaving baccalauréat examination. Fees are nominal, lecture halls overcrowded and buildings often crumbling.

The universities are under-funded: annual state spending on each university student averages €6,700 (US$9,380) – half the amount spent on a student in a preparatory class for entry to a grande école, whose allocation is about €13,000. Many students fail because they choose courses that are unsuitable for them.

Pécresse, appointed Higher Education and Research Minister after Nicolas Sarkozy became President of France in May, has made it a priority to raise student pass rates at bachelor’s degree level to 50% of an age group and to prepare students better for employment.

Among her preliminary actions is an internet debate on “How to succeed in your first university year”. She will announce detailed proposals in November and these are expected to include:

* Measures to help school-leavers choose appropriate university courses, such as pre-enrolment interviews and assessments – but stopping short of outright selection.
* Recasting of courses so the first year provides more general culture and practical training such as languages, methodology and computer studies, leaving specialisation until later than at present.
* Increasing the number of teaching hours for students.

University presidents have approved Pécresse’s strategy but have warned they will require sufficient funds for it to be effective. It remains to be seen if the €40 million (US$575 million) extra for ‘fighting student failure’ in 2008 will be enough (see last week’s University World News: Higher education escapes budget cuts).