Monday, May 27, 2013

An Appalling Portrait of French Universities Today

Le Monde does not mince words. The university of Perpignan, the subject of its portrait, is said to be rife with "students" whose only interest is meeting the minimum requirements for holding on to the scholarship money (470 euros per month for 10 months) that allows them, in conjunction with permitted work elsewhere, to "survive the economic crisis." They turn in empty exam books, because one must take the exam to hold on to the scholarship. They turn up in class only as necessary to qualify to take the exam and do nothing while they are there.

The university president is livid:
"Ces faux étudiants existent depuis toujours mais nous notons une accélération depuis deux-trois ans, en lien avec le chômage des jeunes et l'absence de dispositif de soutien financier pour cette période de transition entre lycée et activité", indique Fabrice Lorente. ...Le président de l'université s'agace : tout cela affecte ses statistiques de réussite en première année. "On nous en fait le reproche. Mais ces étudiants ne veulent pas travailler ! Et le système de répartition des moyens tient compte des taux de réussite en première année..." Taux de 15 % en AES, de 29 % en sociologie, mais de 44 % toutes filières confondues, une fois dilué le problème des faux étudiants. Ce qui place tout de même Perpignan à une très honorable 9e place des universités.
Meanwhile, the professors cope as best they can:
Les étudiants sont censés demeurer dans l'amphithéâtre un tiers du temps de l'épreuve, afin de permettre aux retardataires d'arriver. Mais les enseignants peinent à canaliser ces jeunes venus sans stylo qui trépignent, s'interpellent, sortent les téléphones portables, en attendant de s'échapper."Cette fois-ci, la salle était tellement bruyante que j'ai menacé de les exclure de l'examen et de les compter absents", témoigne Aude Harlé. Dissuasif. Cette absence vaut suppression de bourse. La sociologue organise désormais l'amphithéâtre de façon à épargner les étudiants qui entendent composer, incitant "ceux qui souhaitent partir vite" à se regrouper du côté droit qu'elle évacuera ensuite, rangée par rangée.
And the students?
La sortante suivante, pressée, court sur talons compensés. "J'ai rendez-vous chez le coiffeur, au Leclerc de je sais plus où." Puis viennent deux blondes qui préparent le concours d'infirmière. "La prépa coûte cher..."Assises en rang d'oignon, Sarah, Fara, Sabrina, Samia et quelques autres, moitié apprêtées comme des starlettes de téléréalité, moitié voilées, n'ont pas davantage passé l'examen. Elles redoublent la première année de sociologie ("C'est pas intéressant, ça mène à rien.") après un bac professionnel secrétariat et une admission refusée en BTS, travaillant de-ci de-là "au KFC" ou dans le ménage. 
And of course there is an ethnic-racial-religious undertone:
D'autant qu'à Perpignan, où les plus défavorisés sont souvent enfants de l'immigration maghrébine, le Front national fait recette... "Dans les examens, on commence à percevoir des regards de classe, de rancoeur, entre les jeunes de milieu très populaire et ceux des classes moyennes ou populaires stabilisées. A l'université, lieu de mixité, on entend désormais des propos porteurs de racisme", s'inquiète Eliane Le Dantec, maître de conférences en sociologie. "Ceux-là, ils sont là pour profiter. Ils ne cherchent même pas de travail", nous ont glissé plus tôt deux jeunes filles, devant la porte ouverte de l'amphithéâtre, en désignant quelques garçons d'origine maghrébine installés sur la droite. 
One might almost suspect such an appalling portrait of being a caricature, a fantastic product of the anti-immigrant imagination. But here it is in Le Monde. I assume there is some truth in the story. Perhaps readers sur place can confirm or deny.


FrédéricLN said...

I could note the same "absentéisme" more than ten years ago, in another University. Maybe the requirements were lower, so the ghost students didn't come at all, and the problem was less visible, excepted the (partly) empty classrooms. But teachers were paid, the University budget was credited (it depends on the number of registered students), so nobody worried so much.

I'm quite sure that the famous 'failure rate in the first year at the University' depends directly on the proportion of ghost students. But moreover, indirectly, the proportion of ghosts may bitter the atmosphere, the "occupational condition" at the University, and undermine the morale of the studying students. It's just a guess — but how wouldn't parents prefer the conditions of our glorious "classes préparatoires"? (even if the rest of the world does not envy our classes prépas).

DavidinParis said...

In the French context, the university prepares one for employment. Not for higher learning. I for one, am not surprised that the young have indeed learned one to milk the system to survive in this economic stagnation that offers them little hope for a better life in the future.

Anonymous said...

Perfect image of the University of Nantes as well. Wasted a year there studying Arabic. Utterly shocking in every way. Won't continue my degree because my time is worth so much more. You get what you pay for. An idea which is inexplicably anathema to most French, in spite of all evidence.

Anonymous said...

Note that the kids interviewed are from BEP-bac pro (the previous government decided that BEP was not good enough and all students, however enclined, should get a bac pro. With two consequences: the weakest of the weakest can't hack a 4-year program compressed to 3 years and without an intermediary diploma; the best students can now enroll in unversities where they don't understand anything at all, since the classes are still highly abstract content delivered in lecture-halls. Imagine throwing vocational diploma students into a state flagship's first year gen ed classes, without any remedial instruction or support services.) So you have those who'd have liked to understand but can't, and those who figured that it's a "sytstem".
The 2-year BTS and IUT are actually selective and function well because they are. The students there tend to be weak to average academically but motivated because there cannot be "ghosts" (attendance is required at every class hour and there are 24 of them a week). Kids who can't get into a BTS or DUT and who wouldn't dream of a prépa thus end up in universities. France should create community colleges, I think.
In another development, the National Assembly has adopted California's automatic admit system. The top 4% kids from each high school will have automatic admission to a prépa.

Passerby said...

Ghost students always existed. I have been one for a semester about 15 years ago, back in the days of mandatory military service.

The Army wasn't (and I guess still isn't) the easiest administration to deal with. Being employed abroad I had issues to get the paperwork done to extend my service postponement by a year. Without the delay I'd have to quit my job on the spot. I was much easier to sign-up for university than to go through the army/embassy red-tape.

Basically I signed-up for classes that I thought I'd never want to take if I changed career path, and that were the least likely to be needed by *real* students. So I ended-up registered in psychology, with a specialization in tourism with Sanskrit as a foreign language (the student advising me when I filled the registration thought it would be "too much" if I went ahead with my original idea to choose Esperanto!)

What amazed me the most at the time, was that at every stage of the registration process (filling the registration, checking it and finally having it recorded by administration), every single person who looked at my dossier said: "you're registering to get a delay from the army don't you?". Which shows how rampant the phenomenon was.

Later I realized that it was a win-win situation. Universities received a bit of money from ghost students (I think I had to pay about a couple thousand francs), but without any kind of related expenses.
Students received certificates right away, and it bought them a delay for 1 year-straight. There was no incentive to show-up in the lecture-hall. In my case I just handed-in money and left for good. Being kicked-out mid-year had no incidence.

But I can see how the system is much more perverse if now there is a financial incentive for people to physically sit in classes/exams that they don't care bout.

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