Universities can learn student care from abroad

French universities could learn lessons from abroad on how to provide services for students, according to research from a high-level think-tank, which says their education should be more student-centred, and that with universities’ newly increased autonomy they should take over more responsibility from the state for students’ living conditions.

In its report, Quels services rendus aux étudiants par les universités? – Les enseignements d’expériences étrangères, the Centre d’Analyse Stratégique (CAS), a research centre attached to the prime minister’s office, compared France’s provision of services for university students with those of seven universities in four countries: East London and Oxford in England, Hiroshima and Seikei in Japan, Södertörn and Uppsala in Sweden, and Geneva in Switzerland.

It described two kinds of services, some of which could overlap; those relating to studies (péri-universitaire) – such as reception of new students, information and counselling on courses, educational support and providing for disabled students or those resuming education – and those to do with students’ living and social conditions, including housing, subsidised canteens, transport, cultural and sports activities (para-universitaire).

Setting the scene, the CAS said that, internationally, services for students occupied an increasingly important place in public policy, which tended to place greater autonomy and responsibility for such provision on universities.

In France the state was chiefly responsible for organising and funding para-universitaire services.

But with the introduction of the Universities’ Freedom and Responsibilities law (LRU) nearly all universities had assumed greater responsibilities and control from 1 January 2012, and with their increased funding autonomy they could further widen the range of services they provided to students beyond only the educational ones, said the CAS.

The French state had fixed a target for 50% of an age group to graduate from higher education, and qualifications were going to diversify further with the growth of new students following vocational courses.

“That is why the essential issue for the universities is to improve conditions for their students to succeed and thus strengthen their national and international attractiveness,” said the CAS.

In all the other countries studied by the CAS, péri-universitaire support services were provided, but there were marked differences in the kinds of actions carried out.

Beyond community and sports activities, which universities in all the countries supported to a greater or lesser degree, para-universitaire services varied greatly; while they were located on campus and universities collaborated in providing them, they were often organised by other public or private actors, or students themselves, said the report.

Comparing services

Comparing services in the other countries it found that:

In England, universities placed strong emphasis on “learning to learn as much as possible from experience”. They took account of criteria, notably disability and age, and the “concept of inclusiveness, which has become central in the public policy of this country, implicates the adjustment of universities to the diverse populations for whom they cater”.

On the para-universitaire side, English universities offered extensive and exhaustive services – “all needs expressed by students are taken into account”. Most universities provided in-house student accommodation, guaranteed for first-year students. Student welfare and commercial services such as restaurants, shops, childcare, health care and pastoral care were available.

In Sweden, universities’ responsibility was often limited to education and peri-universitaire services emphasising academic support, information and course advice. These services were part of a “very inclusive” educational system.

Students’ employment prospects, traditionally not taken into account, had recently become a matter of concern for universities, which were also taking account of public diversity (including gender equality and disabled persons), and a student health plan.

Many para-universitaire services such as health, housing and sport were individuals’, not university, responsibilities as they were not considered to be directly linked to education. Students’ organisations fulfilled the role, especially community and cultural life, student jobs and some paying services such as housing.

Until recently in Japan universities, especially those specialising in research, concentrated on academic issues. Following an education ministry report in 2000, services offered to students had gained in importance and visibility, with the aim of putting the student at the centre of university policy.

Péri-universitaire services, in particular counselling on courses, employment prospects and educational support, had since been developed in nearly all universities.

Japanese universities had few direct para-universitaire responsibilities apart from some health obligations, but could take charge of some services such as housing and subsidised canteens either on their own or with private companies.

So-called ‘co-op’ associations of students and university staff in most public universities, and in a fifth of private ones, had developed commercial agencies (for such services as property and travel), which aimed to improve the living conditions of the whole university community.

In the canton of Geneva the university attached particular importance to péri-universitaire services such as information, course counselling, academic support and gender equality, but this development was fairly recent.

While educating students for employment was not a major university preoccupation, the establishment recently of specialised professionally oriented schools encouraged them to get involved in workplace training.

Universities had a limited role on the para-universitaire side, though sports played a prominent part, and they provided a health plan and limited accommodation and canteen services. But students were mostly responsible for these.

Factors affecting student services

The CAS found that autonomy led to greater university involvement in student life. Financial autonomy, including the right to fix enrolment fees and control resources, meant a more open system to develop new services.

English universities, independent of the state, demonstrated this: “The higher education sector is in fact a ‘quasi-market’ in which services offered to students are one of the principal attractions for national and foreign students.”

Autonomy also led to diverse systems – tutorials at Oxford, centralised support services to ensure students’ academic success at East London, said the CAS. Unified campuses also strengthened para-universitaire services.

Other factors affecting the level of services for students included:
  • • The overall level of expenditure on each student, which fluctuated depending on the wealth of the country and level of higher education participation. In Switzerland, for example, the relatively low rate of students meant it could spend more on each student (nearly US$21,577 purchasing power adjusted) than in France (US$14,642 PPA).

  • • Access to higher education for more students, and their greater diversity, led to a rise in different kinds of services over time.

  • • The place of students as a ‘social group’ made them a target of public policy. In England they were traditionally cared for by universities; whereas in Sweden higher education was only one of many social activities, and students, who were older and sometimes already parents, were regarded as more independent, with studies being the priority.

    In Japan, students were traditionally considered very independent, so universities did not develop péri-universitaire provision; nor did the state recognise student mobility much, which explained limited development of social facilities such as public student housing and absence of student representation on various university committees.
Lessons for France

The CAS found the experiences of other countries had rich lessons for France.

It said French universities should develop their péri-universitaire services, which were a common preoccupation in the other countries. In France, however, research was a greater priority and resources were limited and not directed strategically.

The LRU university autonomy law had only just taken effect, and universities remained in “a situation of semi-autonomy compared with their European counterparts”.

First, said the CAS, French universities should become student-centred, with particular attention given to counselling lycée (higher secondary) pupils about university courses, student support and consideration of students’ future employment prospects. Universities would gain by understanding the expectations of their students, organising the institution around them and giving more attention to those who needed it.

Second, they should improve their para-universitaire services, particularly housing and catering, and adapt them to local needs.

Third, university funds should be directed more towards péri-universitaire services, which could be paid for by adjusting universities’ finance relative to other kinds of higher education, differentiating funds allocated to universities depending on their students’ educational qualifications and increasing finance from regional authorities, businesses – and students.

Fourth, students should be encouraged to participate in designing and managing the services provided by the universities.