Deal breaks impasse on masters students' selection

Ministers have secured a landmark compromise agreement with university presidents, students’ organisations, and lecturers’ and researchers’ unions, to settle the thorny issue of selection of students for masters degree courses.

For years universities have sought the right to select masters students at entry to the first year, but the law forbade selection and students have always been implacably opposed. Now, after six months of intensive negotiations, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, minister of education, higher education and research, and Thierry Mandon, secretary of state for higher education and research, have managed to bridge the divide between the opposing positions.

Under legislation due to be passed by December, from September 2017 universities will be able to select masters students by entrance examination or on the basis of their previous results. But all students who have obtained their initial three-year licence (bachelor equivalent) degree and wish to continue their studies will be entitled to a place on a masters course, though they will not necessarily be guaranteed their first choice.

The present situation dates back to 2002 with adoption of the Bologna Process of three, five and eight years of higher education, known in France as ‘LMD’ (licence, master, doctorat). Under LMD French universities offered a variety of masters-level diplomas, some conforming to the Bologna specifications but others closer to the former national structure, which included shorter courses.

In practice, this led to all students with a licence having the right to enrol for the first year of a masters course – but many were later ‘deselected’ by the university and refused entry to the second year, leaving them with four years of higher education but no matching degree.

This practice was judged illegal by the Council of State in February, leading to an increase in student complaints to the administrative courts.

Negotiations launched in April

In April Mandon launched negotiations with the Conference of University Presidents, or CPU, teachers’ and researchers’ unions and students’ organisations. These resulted in the new agreement earlier this month – which studiously avoids the word ‘selection’.

In future, universities will be able to specify their rules for ‘recruiting’ (rather than ‘selecting’) students at entry to the first year of masters, with admission of students dependent on an examination or their previous records and results. However, courses for which there is little demand will remain open to all.

Selection between the first and second masters years will be discontinued, although as an exception for the time being, it will be retained for over-subscribed law and psychology masters courses.

The new law will establish a right for all licence graduates to continue their studies with a masters. Those not admitted to the first year of their chosen masters course can apply to the education authority, which must offer three other appropriate courses including one at their university of origin or in the region. The offers must be consistent with the student’s professional plans and licence. Students who have to relocate to another area can claim a mobility allowance.

The ministry of education will set up a website for students seeking a course, giving information on available places and entry criteria for all masters courses.

Agreement welcomed

In a statement the CPU said it was pleased the agreement fixed recruitment at the start of the masters, and no longer in the middle of its two years.

“This agreement is important because it releases universities from legal uncertainty linked to the recruitment of masters students, and lets them be consistent with the organisation of study cycles established in the Bologna Process,” said the CPU.

The agreement maintained the value of the masters diploma for employers and employment regarding the quality of the students; and it allowed universities to respond better to students’ career demands, and made the processes of access, support and success clearer and more intelligible for them, said the CPU.

The two major students’ unions also welcomed the agreement.

The Union Nationale des Étudiants de France, or UNEF, said it had won the right for all students to continue their studies after the licence, abandoning an “absurd” and elitist system of selection which had resulted in reducing the percentage of working-class students taking a licence from 12.7% to only 7.8% of those following a masters course.

As social inequalities increased with each level of education, it was necessary to democratise access to the masters and give everyone access to the highest level. This reform must contribute to relaunching social mobility and give the right to a quality diploma leading to integration in the job market, said UNEF.

The Fédération des Associations Générales Étudiantes, or FAGE, said it was a historic agreement guaranteeing the right of all licence graduates to continue their studies with a masters. FAGE would remain vigilant during the legislative process to come.