From many perspectives, the French higher education system must be doing great: there are numerous prestigious schools, thousands of students attend them and the government spends millions and millions of Euros since the 1980s in both subsidising students and universities. But looks can be deceiving. In fact, the number of students failing to pass their year is at a record high, universities are overcrowded, infrastructure is in dire need of renovation and youth unemployment is closing in on the 30% figure (European Union average at 20%). ‘Free and fair’ universities turn out to be neither free nor fair. So what needs to be done now?
The movement of government-subsidised academia indeed has a deep historic context in France that goes back to 1985: President François Mitterrand (1981-1995) followed the dogma of his Minister of Education, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, that ‘more students = higher level of employment and higher level of salary = higher purchasing power’. In order to achieve this goal, the government wanted to push the number young people in higher education to 80%.
It turned out that those students who would not necessarily attend university did not live in a city with a university, could not afford the living costs and tuition, or simply were not attracted by the prospect of pursuing a degree. That is why Mitterrand did what he could do best: he spent as much money as he could, both on universities and on students individually. Today, tuition fees vary, for some students they tend towards 15€, but even international students don’t pay more than 200€ for a year. Student subsidies vary, but an average student now makes between 250-400€ a month, knowing that all of them profit from housing subsidies up to 175€ to pay off rent.
Despite all these efforts the French economy has been slacking behind ever since and youth unemployment had drastic ups and downs over the years. Compare that to the United Kingdom which, without supporting their students with welfare reforms, managed to keep a lower average and recovered quicker after recessions. This his got to do with the British tendency to allow more flexibility in the labour market, which makes it easier even for low-qualified young people to start off in life.
France is still pursuing a policy it implemented in 1985 which consists in a bloated number of young people in higher education. This cannot stay the long-term solution. Drastic changes need to be made.
Why are French universities overcrowded?
In the year 2015 my own faculty made attending tutorials non-compulsory, not because they considered students to be autonomous enough to deal with the material themselves, but much rather because adding up the number of students per tutorial would lead to the inevitable conclusion that there merely aren’t enough seats for all of them. It’s a definitive change when for the first time your school expects you to not come in in the morning.
One of the reasons why French universities are overcrowded has already been given: if you subsidise something with millions of Euros, you might just get more of it, and if you continue to do so, you will get an excess. This has effectively created a generation of young people who, even though they know an apprenticeship in manual works for example would suit them better, will choose to go into higher education first, since it is free of charge. They end up costing their neighbours considerable amounts and losing a year which they could have used to develop skills in a different job
But in order to make university not only free, but also fair, France wanted to get rid of the ‘elitist’ system which is getting accepted to a university. For the longest time some demanded an entry exam or certain grades in order to get accepted: the numerus clausus. The French government got rid off that, opening the flood gates for thousands of students who otherwise would have been rejected. This has been especially striking in social sciences, law, international relations, history and medicine. Since then, only the medicine faculties successfully lobbied to get the restrictions reintroduced.
While in other European countries universities faced with too many applications used the numerus clausus or increased tuition fees, French universities which cannot do either of those things, found a different way to manage their overpopulation, which leads us to the answer of the next question.
Why do so many students fail?
2014 data shows that only 30% of French students get their bachelor degree without resetting a year, only 43.8% make it from first to second year and a solid 19% leave university with no diploma whatsoever. Now why is that? Some of it obviously has to do with the decline of the quality of public secondary education, but a different explanation is that degrees are generally more difficult to acquire than they were before. Law students get told:
“Only 10% of you will actually make it to the next year. At least we hope so, no idea where to put you if more of you make it.”
Instead of making the system free and fair, higher education becomes increasingly expensive for taxpayers and increasingly difficult for students.
Universities first need to take matters into their own hands: autonomous budgeting and application policy are the first step. This will reduce government spending waste and will rebalance the number of students pursuing higher education. But if universities want to survive in the future, even more substantial structural changes need to be made: faculties need to invest to match standards of current technology, curricula needs to be revised and unnecessary subjects need to be cut, even if that means people being laid off, and the entire higher education system needs to confront the rise of alternative education methods by joining their example.
Innovation through private initiatives
The more the internet and its already incredible richness in material gets involved in higher education, the more choice the consumer gets. Thousands of online platforms already offer online classes and the number of students doing their work from home keeps increasing. French faculties keep following this system of hundreds of students gathering in enormous auditoriums to listen to a professor for many hours while merely stenographically writing down a monotonous speech. We can do better than that.
Internet classes have taught students to become more autonomous and challenge the status quo of the old-school higher education system. It is the new type of university, the system of the 21st century. But instead of adhering to this movement of innovation, state-run schools write it off as if it is of neglectable importance. Every time government has done this it inevitably failed.
Higher education needs to innovate to survive, for this we will need courage to take on new challenges. The dull system we have now does not help students, it is neither free nor fair. Government needs to change course.
It is as simple as that: grow up, or die.
* Bill Wirtz is a libertarian blogger and activist who studies in France. He promotes liberty in Europe by blogging and publishing in local newspapers in four different languages and as a Local Coordinator for European Students for Liberty.