Friday, June 21, 2013

The Never-Ending Crisis of French Universities

It's baaaaaaaaaack. Of course, it never really went away. "The French university is in crisis" is more or less the French equivalent of "the boy who cried wolf." Except there really is a wolf at the door, and has been since the university was "massified" in the wake of May '68. Concurrent reports indicate that many universities have become holding pens for students who would rather be elsewhere: recipients of a bac pro waiting for a spot where they can earn a BTS; young people who would rather collect a modest bourse than join the unemployment lines; students unprepared for higher education who flail about for two years before joining the 50 percent of washouts (90 percent among the bac pro group--yes, 90 percent! Eine schande, as my grandmother would have said).

A report by François Vatin and Antoine Vernet paints the portrait in more sober language:
La crise de l’Université française est aujourd’hui patente pour toutes les parties concernées : les pouvoirs publics qui dénoncent les dysfonctionnements de l’institution, les étudiants et leur famille qui fuient l’Université pour des formations concurrentes, les enseignantschercheurs eux-mêmes qui, après un long mutisme sur leurs conditions professionnelles, manifestent de plus en plus clairement leur insatisfaction sur l’évolution de leur institution. Les réformes lancées par les pouvoirs publics (réorganisation des cursus conformément aux accords de Bologne ou « LMD », autonomisation des établissements ou « loi LRU », redéfinition des statuts des personnels enseignants) se proposent de résoudre cette crise. Quelle que soit l’idée que l’on se fait de leur capacité à la résoudre à long terme – j’y reviendrai en conclusion –, ces réformes en cours ou en projet ne peuvent, à court terme, qu’amplifier cette crise, tant parce qu’elles constituent une preuve de son existence (on réforme parce qu’il y a un problème à résoudre) que parce qu’elles suscitent des réactions négatives de la communauté universitaire, qui peut être amenée à rejeter dans une même condamnation la maladie et les remèdes qu’on lui propose, considérant, à tort ou à raison, que de tels remèdes ne peuvent qu’empirer le mal.

The social sciences are particularly afflicted. Higher ed minister Geneviève Fioraso offers this oblique defense:
On a besoin des SHS mais les employeurs vous le disent, c’est ça le pire. Ils nous disent à côté des écoles d’ingénieurs, des écoles de commerce, on a besoin de ces compétences, de cette créativité mise en perspective, de sens critique, dialogue, décryptage des différents milieux. Pour vendre, je m’excuse de dire cela, il faut connaître les usages ! Pour concevoir un produit il faut être sensible aux usages, sensible aux évolutions, aux tendances.
She has famously legalized the teaching of courses in English. This is a good idea, but she defends it not on the grounds that French students need to acquire competence in the language of Shakespeare but rather that French universities need to attract foreign students:

Ses propos sur Proust, pour justifier des cursus en anglais à la fac,« si nous n’autorisons pas les cours en anglais, nous n’attirerons pas les étudiants de pays émergents comme la Corée du Sud et l’Inde. Et nous nous retrouverons à cinq à discuter de Proust autour d’une table », n’ont pas rassuré ceux qui attendaient de l’arrivée de la gauche aux affaires un changement de perspective après l’ironie sarkozyste sur La Princesse de Clèves.
As I predicted before the election, the Socialists have swallowed the Pécresse reform more or less wholesale and are proceeding on the assumption that it will work as advertised. It may, but in the meantime turbulence and deterioration are everywhere. Vatin and Vernet put their finger on the core problem:

Soyons clair, l’Université ne peut résister dans un contexte de concurrence croissante où toutes les formations ont le droit, sauf elle, de sélectionner leur public à l’entrée. La conséquence évidente d’une telle concurrence déloyale est que l’Université se trouve chargée d’absorber, bien ou mal, la population qui n’a pas trouvé de place ailleurs. Le fait que les formations concurrentes soient, pour une large part, privées et payantes, ajoute à cette dégradation annoncée de l’enseignement supérieur public un effet d’injustice sociale. Ceux qui, en effet, n’auront pas pu accéder, non pour des raisons de compétences académiques mais pour des raisons financières, à des formations supérieures privées se verront en effet imposé le discrédit attaché à leur formation universitaire.

5 comments:

Passerby said...

Regarding the "massification" problem. Not only baccalauréat sucess rates have been constantly improving, but they have been doing so due to lowered academic standards (l'Académie d'Orléans-Tours gave a us another fine example this year, getting caught red-handed curving the grades of the French exam).

Giving away the diploma allows the administration & governments to pat themselves on the back for the good results.
Who cares if students unfit for undergrad studies waste 2 years of their life on university benches? You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs...

DavidinParis said...

Having spent > 25 years in the US and the last 7 years in France, both in university settings, I can attest that the French system is severely broken. WIth the exception of the Ecoles Normales/Sup and other such elitist settings (that have their own issues that are worth highlighting), the French university is a structure with little accountability, no real meritocracy and no academic vision. Structurally, they are in a state of disarray, filled with graffiti, garbage, cigarette butts and broken windows sending the message (perhaps unintentionally) that this is not a place where education is honored. Consequently the students respond in kind. This is not a simple result of lack of funds, but lack of proper organization and conflicting fiefdoms.

I think a major cause of this problem is that the state-run university is not structured to educate and illuminate, but to serve the state by 'training' young people for jobs and to do so at the lowest cost possible. This may well be a useful goal, but what jobs are people being trained for? How can a university, particularly when subject to the state, decide what the jobs of tomorrow will be? How different it would be if it was simply acknowledged that we have no idea what the major industries will tomorrow. We carry technological marvels in our pockets that did not exist 10 years ago. The computer illiterate can design their own websites. Biomedical science is uncovering nature's secrets today that will provide common-place medicines of tomorrow. The university is not a place of thought and vision, but of vocational training anchored in a cartesian analysis of today's job market. By definition, this viewpoint will be forever lagging behind the curve and creating young 'diplomés' that will find deception in the job market of tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Compared to the American system, French universities are quite selective because they require a "bac", with a uniform curriculum*. Match a bac pro student and an American 2.0, purely general/college prep/remedial kid going to community college or Eastern State U to get an idea. Even being quite acaemically challenged, the bac pro kid still has a better level. yet French universities have nothing that basic, "directional" public universities offer. I talked with a serious student recently but when I asked him "what are you evaluated on? What percentage of your grade is it?" he told me that such information was seen as impertinent, superfluous, or pointless by the professors involved (except the one American lecturer who states clearly what the format will be and what can be expected.) But worst of all, bac pro students should never be enrolled in universities. If you start comparing the 2.0 general/remedial/College prep high school kid with the "regular" bac kids (i.e., techno and général) the difference is even more striking. Yes even the ST2S and STMG can write a literature paper such as "Using examples from the Renaissance till today, explain how poetic creation is affected by places and impressions". Even if they don't do it well, they have been challenged to this type of thinking.
In my opinion, the problem isn't lack of selection in French universities. There are many problems but selection shouldn't be the solution.
One problem is that you have faculty:student ratios of 1:44 or more and teaching practices that are disconnected from the actual public. Another problem is overcrowding and abysmal facilities (run down, falling apart, with poor upkeep). More money, some training for professors and lecturers, and a general physical updating, perhaps through work study, would do wonders. In particular, instead of bemoaning the fact the top students no longer want to attend, a solution is to accept the fact those in the lecture halls are not brilliant and self motivated, and adapt the schedules, practices, and class sizes to reflect that, providing mandatory tutoring and support for those who are absent 3 times or more (this would diminish the "ghost student" phenomenom.) Finally, a new type of public institutions should be created for the bac pro who wish to continue after their bac, on the model of community colleges perhaps, perhaps linked to the CFA's rather than to research universities. bac pro students haven't studied what they need to survive in a university environment and haven't been taught the skills. They shouldn't be directed to the "facs".
*Passerby: the students weren't graded "out of" 24. I suppose you understand ratios?
If the topic interests educators out there, a summary of the "problem" with the revelation that knowing "une simple règle de trois" would have greatly helped the journalist before she published her "news".
http://philippe-watrelot.blogspot.fr/2013/06/bloc-notes-de-la-semaine-du-17-au-22.html
http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/jean-pierre-veran/190613/notation-au-bac-et-si-la-note-juste-n-etait-pas-la-note-vraie

To said...

@Anonymous: "Finally, a new type of public institutions should be created for the bac pro who wish to continue after their bac, on the model of community colleges perhaps, perhaps linked to the CFA's rather than to research universities."

Well, that's what the STS's were supposed to be...

It would make perfect sense to allow universities to select students, provided there are enough spots in other higher ed curricula to fill the gap. I heard that industrial BTS could absorb tens of thousands of extra students...

Anonymous said...

I've actually lectured in STS and they're nothing like community colleges. They're like small preprofessional/liberal arts colleges - think Manhattanville, Dean, or Fisher. Students are in classes of 25 or so, take a set of required classes, have occasional internships, then finish with a licence pro or a small business school degree, often through a co-op.
The STS suppose that all basic study skills and general education has been acquired.
Industrial BTS indeed are looking for students - but they'd find them if they offered some opportunity to catch up if you don't have a STEM bac.
French universities are much more selective than most public American universities. The main problem is that they all imagine themselves flagships and aren't funded even to the level community colleges are. :s
If the universities become selective, there needs to be a new, non selective form of higher education invented AND the government better take care of the way they function and look.