France's two-tier university system contributes to the country's stagnation. The graduates of the grandes écoles are at last starting to tackle thisby Tim King / July 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Early summer in France sees anxious sixth formers and their more anxious parents wondering about the future as they wait for the results of this year’s baccalauréat. But here, unlike in Britain with its A-levels, the waiting is not accompanied by agonised family discussions about which university. Come September, nine out of ten French baccalaureates will simply shuffle along to the university nearest home. In France there is no selection for a place at university any more than there is at school: anyone with the bac can have a stab at any subject—in theory, a beautiful and generous public service that offers equality for all. The weeding-out process comes with the first-year exams. Half the undergraduates will fail and have to rethink their future—in medicine, only one in ten pass. A waste, perhaps, but at least they have been allowed to try and there’s nothing to stop them enrolling in another subject next year—it’s all free. Except that many students complain that, with no support from the remote teaching staff, they are left alone to fend for themselves.
French universities spurn contact with industry and do not encourage research, so the undergraduate experience gives only an illusion of progress. Most courses equip students to teach, but since there are few teaching jobs, most humanities graduates end up doing something else or out of work. Some stay on to do postgraduate degrees, but it doesn’t get any better: of those awarded an MA or doctorate in 2003, a quarter are now in a job for life, a quarter on short contracts and half are on the dole. The overwhelming despair of those wasted years is what drove students on to the streets earlier this year. Limiting entry by pre-selection might seem the obvious remedy, but any mention is howled down as un-republican. Overcrowded, underfunded, French provincial universities are where you go if you can’t do better.
For those who can do better, however, there is an alternative. School-leavers with an average of 85 per cent in their bac, who have been to a good lycée and whose parents can afford to support them, can consider a two-year preparation course for the fierce entry exams to a grande école. Held in awe by all French people, these somewhat mythic places are the opposite of the universities: highly selective, they seek only the best and all but guarantee their graduates not only jobs…