FRANCE: Degree reform to boost graduate employability

A minimum of 1,500 teaching hours, programmes tailored to individual students and work experience for all students who want it are key features of the reformed licence, France's three-year equivalent to the bachelor degree.

Presenting her last major reform, as outgoing Minister for Higher Education and Research, Valérie Pécresse (pictured) said the new licence would be "a diploma of reference for both students and employers".

In keeping with universities' autonomous status, each institution will devise its own programmes. But as well as guaranteeing all students an education of quality, courses must focus on preparing them for professional life.

Due to be introduced progressively from September 2012, the reform builds on a five-year, EUR730 million (US$1 billion) programme introduced by Pécresse in 2007 to improve the success rate of students taking their first degree, and to cut the first-year failure rate of nearly 50%.

The reform introduces four major changes.

First, every course must comprise at least 1,500 teaching hours over its three years. At present these vary on average from 1,432 hours for arts, literature and languages programmes - with some as low as 1,200 hours - to 1,745 for hard sciences, technology and health studies.

Pécresse is aiming to narrow the gap between university courses and those of the preparatory classes of the selective grandes écoles, whose teaching hours are 900 hours a year over two years. These classes prepare post-baccalauréat students (if their school grades are good enough) for the competitive examination for the grandes écoles.

Second, universities must expand and 'personalise' their programmes to suit each student. "Because the university must cater for all students, we must pass from a system of selection by failure to a process of success for all, thanks to diversification of courses," said Pécresse.

Greater support must be provided for students in difficulty, and linkages established between study programmes so students can switch courses, depending on their results and development of their plans for the future.

At the higher end of the scale universities must also offer 'programmes of excellence', through such initiatives as double degrees and studies leading to the competitive examinations of the grandes écoles.

Third, all students must have the opportunity to include at least one period of workplace training as part of their university course, to give them direct experience of professional life, help them decide what direction their studies should take, and make a smoother transition to working life.

Fourth, benchmarks will set out the objectives of the education on offer and the academic knowledge and skills students are expected to acquire during their three years of licence studies.

As well as disciplinary competence, these will include generic skills such as personal autonomy, ability to analyse and summarise, languages and computer know-how; and employment-related knowledge such as familiarity with the professional fields to which the courses are related, personal and professional career plans and work experience.

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FRANCE: 'University selection through high failure rate'