The Problem with French Universities

 /  Jan. 15, 2018, 2:38 p.m.

French Universities

The notion of “the best universities in the world” is subjective, but a few common (mostly American, occasionally British) names often come to mind. Rankings constantly neglect France—a country whose history as the birthplace of Pascal and Descartes as well as that of the West’s most influential revolution—would lead one to think otherwise. In the 2016 Times Higher Education Rankings, for example, France claimed only one spot in the top hundred, the École Normale Supérieure at number sixty-six. In contrast, the United Kingdom boasts six spots in the top twenty-five alone.

Although the UK (well-represented in these rankings) and France spend similar amounts of money on education, French universities are based on exclusionary principles. The French state spends 6,700 euros per public student per year, but up to thirteen thousand euros can be spent per student enrolled in Grandes Écoles, despite their only accounting for five percent of total students. Thus, though they only teach five percent of French students, these Grandes Écoles receive 30 percent of the government’s education budget.

France’s unequal expenditure per student means that the state spends far less on its “average” students than the United Kingdom does, so tuition is substantially lower in France than in the United Kingdom. French university students have to pay the equivalent of about 220 or 170 dollars a year, while English university students in 2010 paid from $3,700 to $11,000. With such low tuition, many French students have access to universities but cannot expect much individual attention in large classrooms or well-maintained buildings. Students at Bordeaux Montaigne University, for example, complain that old and run-down buildings are only partially rebuilt. In addition, since no private universities exist in France, the only way for students to be provided better resources is for them to be admitted to the elite schools. On the other hand, students in the United Kingdom do pay more but can expect a higher quality, individualized, education. This is not to say that the British do not grumble about high tuition, but they do expect their education to be of use to them in their careers—unlike the French.

The French university system has peculiarities that go beyond policy. Indeed, policies are indissociable from the culture in which they are created. For example, the Education Code has prohibited private institutions from calling themselves universities since 1880. Diplomas from private universities may or may not be recognized by the state. This policy stems from the egalitarian sentiment in France that higher education is free, a strong statement that constitutes the first article of the “Code de l’Éducation.”

It also entails that every French citizen with a high school diploma (Baccalauréat) has the right to attend a university and ensures low tuition fees for public universities. In practice, this means overfilled auditoria, high dropout rates, and fierce competition among students. Ella, a first-year medical student in Paris, is part of a class of 1,500 students and recounts, “You could leave your laptop behind and no one would go near it, but some students steal your notes and destroy them. They think that, by screwing you up, they improve their own chances of passing first year.” This level of competition is not that visible in the United Kingdom. In response to the question: “What single word explains why people go into higher education”, over half (56.6 percent) of the 4,212 respondents chose “fun”.

The accessibility of French universities—both from an admissions and financial perspective— paradoxically has had negative consequences on students. In 1968, French Minister of Education Alain Peyrefitte compared undergraduate life in France to “organizing a shipwreck to see who can swim.” At least in this respect, after almost fifty years, not much has changed.   

At France’s open enrollment public universities, the first year dropout and failure rate is close to 50 percent—compared to just 8.4 percent at British institutions. For more competitive fields like medicine, rates of failure at French universities are even higher: 90 percent of medical students do not pass their first year and 80 percent of those who repeat it are again unsuccessful. Moreover, while 75 percent of British students complete their degrees in three years, this is true for just 27 percent of French students. Not only do high failure rates drain government resources, contribute to larger class sizes, and lower the quality of education, but they also waste students’ time—along with the money that they could instead be making and contributing to the economy. Making public universities too accessible, thus, can have negative consequences.

Even though the French university system has many shortcomings, some of these may not be attributed solely to governmental policies. French universities continue to teach and publish primarily in French instead of English, leading to an inaccessibility in the schools not found in other countries. France’s failure to teach in English results in low enrollment of international students. There are also very few publications from France in journals such as Science (United States) and Nature (United Kingdom), leading to an artificially low performance in rankings.

Although it may be difficult to change a country’s attitude toward education, there are some changes that France could make to boost its universities’ reputations.  For example, embracing the English language may not only allow for more publications from French schools but also attract international students. Having a more open application process for French universities similar to Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in the United Kingdom would allow easier access for prospective students as well. Perhaps instituting a holistic admissions process similar to that of the US or UK, as well as more rigorous admissions criteria would also serve to improve French universities. What is clear, however, is that French universities must institute concrete reforms to be able to compete on the world stage.

EUChicago is the University of Chicago’s chapter of the transatlantic think tank, European Horizons. This article was written by Michal Rajski, Alexandra Davis, Gabriel Goodspeed, Dalton Goree, Theresa Haunold, and Nate Johnson. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be found here.

EUChicago Research Team


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