Government launches plan to prevent student failure

The government has launched its Students Plan, with funding of nearly €1 billion (US$1.2 billion), aiming to cut the high first-year failure rate, reform controversial university admission processes and increase the number of places for heavily oversubscribed courses.

But while it avoids overt pre-entry selection – a taboo for students – and gives students a ‘final say’ in their choice of studies, critics have claimed it would introduce selection in all but name.

The Plan Étudiants: Accompagner chacun vers la réussite was presented last Monday by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, Minister for Higher Education, Research and Innovation Frédérique Vidal, and National Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.

It resulted from three months of consultations involving all sectors of the university community, set up in July by Vidal after she became minister in the new government following the election in May of President Emmanuel Macron.

The major challenge was to rescue a system that had widened access to higher education for 80% of an age group without sufficient resources to cater for all and ensure their success.

High school or lycée graduates are guaranteed a place at a public university regardless of their grades and the failure rate for a first degree is about 60% – and the result was that the system had resorted to a lottery, condemned by students and academics alike, to decide which applicants would get places in the most oversubscribed courses, such as sport, law and psychology.

Under the plan, the government has allocated €450 million to set up new programmes, and an extra €500 million over five years to create 130,000 new places in oversubscribed courses.

According to government figures, student numbers have increased eightfold since 1960, from 310,000 to 2,609,700 in 2016-17, and will continue to rise before stabilising at about 510,000 new students annually in 2022.

Only 27% of students gain their licence (bachelor degree equivalent) in three years, and another 12% pass after four years. The remaining 61% either abandon their first choice of study after one or two years, or change their course.

So the reform will aim to align students to studies that are suited to them, and to prevent what is called ‘selection by failure’.

French higher education institutions include the selective grandes écoles, but the plan mostly concerns the universities, which do not select students on admission – a practice that would be unacceptable for politically volatile student bodies.

The ministers stressed that passing the school-leaving baccalauréat exam would remain the passport for young people to higher education, and places on appropriate courses would be offered to all, without recourse to the discredited lottery.

“I am not, and never have been afraid of the word ‘selection’, but that is not what we are proposing,” said Philippe during the launch. “Between brutal selection and the lottery there is a range of more flexible and more humane solutions. The aim is not for universities to say ‘no’. In most cases, they will say ‘yes’, and in some cases they will say ‘yes, if…’.”

The reform plan

The reform will start when students are still at lycée (high school), and the first steps will begin before the end of 2017.

Its measures include that by Christmas two form teachers, instead of one, will be appointed in each class in the final lycée year to give students individual help in constructing their study plans, and two weeks will be devoted during the school year to helping them choose the right studies.

From January 2018 a more user-friendly website will provide full information about institutions and courses, together with admissions procedures, replacing the old dysfunctional site.

Lycée students will be able to make up to 10 course applications, which will not be ranked in order of preference, and they will be better informed about the skills they are expected to possess before they enrol. For example, for the popular sports programme not only sports skills are required, but also competence in scientific and literary subjects.

Where necessary they could be required to take refresher courses to bring them up to the required standard.

Each education authority will have a new commission for access to higher education to supervise improved contact and dialogue between lycées and higher education institutions.

Schools will prepare reports and recommendations for each student, to which higher education institutions will have access. Then one of three scenarios is possible:
  • • In most cases, the candidate will have the necessary competences and be accepted for the course.

  • • If the student does not meet the required standard but there are free places, they could be accepted after taking refresher courses; but, said ministers, no student would be turned away if there were places available.

  • • If the student wanted to follow an oversubscribed course, either they might be admitted immediately, or put on a ‘waiting list’. If no place became available, the university would be obliged to offer a place on another course, as close as possible to the student’s original request.
First-degree courses will be made more flexible, adaptable to each student and based on credits that can be earned in less or more than three years.

Students’ living costs will be reduced, thanks to measures including:
  • • Abolition of student social security regimes and inclusion of students in the national scheme, saving them €217 a year, and replacement with a lower, means-tested comprehensive ‘student-life’ contribution;

  • • An accelerated student housing programme;

  • • Grants made on social criteria to be more efficiently run, and flexible financial help such as mobility allowances.
Reactions to the plan

The Conference of University Presidents, or CPU, welcomed the plan as “courageous” and said it and the universities were “ready to rise to the challenge of this reform and so put an end to the intolerable double selection, by lottery and by failure”.

The CPU also called on the government to offer the universities “real educational autonomy, allowing construction of a process for success offering those most vulnerable the essential education they need to avoid failure”; and for universities’ funding to be “adequate to meet the challenges for their new duties of diversification and raising standards, allowing them to express their capacity for innovation”.

However, the National Union of Students of France, or UNEF, said the reform would “threaten free access to higher education for a whole generation”.

UNEF said the government wanted to “close the university doors” to lycée students, who would not be allowed to express their wishes in choosing their course – but “the school committee would give its advice, universities will be able to classify the reports into order of preference, and the lycéen would get a more or less favourable response”.

“Even if students have the last word on courses that are not oversubscribed, the ministry can… impose a course on [them] to ‘control the flow’,” UNEF said.

While it was urgent to resolve the 60% licence failure rate, the plan would not help because it would “change the students rather than the university”, which would be able to determine access to a course, UNEF said.

It pointed out that €450 million of the funding announced by the government had already been allocated for specific projects, and not all universities would have access. “So there remains only €500 million over five years to cater for nearly 3 million students between now and 2025, which is quite insufficient to fulfil the needs of the institutions.”

UNEF’s demands included that all kinds of selection be abandoned during the reform of first degrees; and that €2 billion a year for 10 years be invested in higher education.

But the Federation of Students General Associations, or FAGE, gave a qualified welcome to the “ambitious reform which makes real the democratisation of access and success in higher studies”. It claimed the principle of school-leavers having the final word on their choice of course, “rather than brutal selection or a lottery” was an ideological and cultural victory for the federation.

But it said its members would remain vigilant to ensure that lack of places in subjects under pressure “must in no case become a reason for universities to refuse admission to a course”.

It also said the increase of 130,000 places in oversubscribed courses and the reform’s funding were insufficient, and called for more information and guarantees before students could fully accept the government’s plan.