After months of extensive consultations, the French Minister of Higher Education and Research, Frederique Vidal, disclosed her bill for a reform of the French public universities admission system on October 30. The reform was rushed due to the turmoil of the random enrollment of 3000 bacheliers at 169 university programs. The randomized procedure concerned the fields of studies where student applications exceeded the seats available (especially in sport studies, psychology and law). The new system had been in place for a couple of years, but remained unnoticed until massive numbers of students were affected this year. A glitch in the software—Admission Post Bac (APB)—allowed 2016 bacheliers to re-start their first year in university in a different field. The result spurred student union protests throughout the summer.
This technical mistake gave equal consideration to 2016 and 2017 bachelier applications and revealed a structural challenge of French public higher education. In the past three years, the system has had to absorb an additional 30,000 to 40,000 students every year, a trend that is supposed to continue to 2020. Referencing the French law that gives all bacheliers the right to enroll in higher education, student unions are calling for a substantial increase of public funds to enable universities to respond. The protests were extensively covered by the media and could not be ignored by the new-elected president Macron and his government.
Prior to 2008, when APB was put in place, students had to rank 24 degree choices and university seats were allocated through a complex algorithm that took into account high school grades and the geographical location of student’s home. With the 2017 reform, students can only make 10 non-ranked program choices at any university within the national territory. But the major innovation is twofold. First, high school teachers now have responsibility for providing orientation and offering recommendations based on the choices a student has made. Second, even if the decision about where to apply remains with the student, universities still have the autonomy and right to reject them.
Student unions remain divided on the government proposal. The reformist association, the FAGE, now a leader at the national level, sees the government’s decision to allow students to decide where to study as a victory. On the other hand, the leftist UNEF claims that the government project undermines the French legal principle of higher education for all and calls for demonstrations. Surprisingly, high school and university students are not easy to mobilize; the UNEF actually—likely deliberately—seems to ignore that the selective admission taboo ended a long time ago. A survey by the magazine L’Etudiant in 2016 of 2500 high school and university students indicated that more than 57% were in favor of some selection.
These surprising numbers may be explained by the fact that the French public higher education is extraordinarily diversified and institutions apply different criteria for selection. It is well known that open-enrollment universities co-exist with highly selective grandes ecoles. But the public generally ignores that French public universities have also avoided treating all incoming students equally by applying several “tricks” to circumvent the “no selection” policy. Some universities, such as the University Paris Dauphine or Lorraine University, have created a specific status of grand etablissement, that allows them to introduce selective programs. Moreover, an increasing number of curricula within traditional public universities are selective; it’s the case of the Instituts Universitaires de Technologie, created in the mid 1960s, that consistently attract growing numbers of applications from students who lack the economic or cultural capital to enroll at grandes ecoles, but have strong academic records. There is also the phenomenon of doubles licences—university programs that combine two academic disciplines—and other new undergraduate programs allowed by the Ministry to filter student admissions. For instance, offering a comprehensive program taught in English is a way to create a selection process. Though these examples remain marginal on the French HE landscape, they reveal the agility of public universities to develop strategies to keep the best students from abandoning their classrooms in favor of the elite institutions or applying to private institutions, sectors that enroll at least 20% of French students according to the sociologist François Vatin. All in all, experts estimate that selective HE programs involve around 60% of French students.
Frederique Vidal’s bill was presented to the Parliament of Deputies in February. The leading national student union (FAGE) supported “no selection” but at the same time advocates reform. With little surprise, the bill passed with few, if any, street protests.
Some hope that this “soft selection” will restore the degraded image of many public universities, viewed lately as the ‘voiture balai’ (a last choice) now in the higher education system. “No selection” has contributed to low graduation rates; students, on their part, often drop out even before taking exams because they landed in a particular program by default. Faculty members are demoralized by teaching students with weak academic backgrounds. Optimists see the reform as a way to improve university attractiveness but the question remains—how will the reform deal with the weakest students; to what extent will public universities embrace the responsibility of helping them to catch up? In many undergraduate programs, faculty members are overwhelmed by large cohorts of students and lack resources to handle teaching or student evaluations. Will they take time to build up individualized strategies such as face-to-face meetings, customized programs of studies, etc.? Will secondary schools help their students to choose appropriate study programs? They might lack the resources as well as incentives to do so. Secondary school teachers may not have an adequate overview of the higher education programs available and as the student makes the final decision, they might find it pointless to devote resources to influence a decision over which (ultimately) they have no control. It is a tremendous responsibility to influence an individual’s destiny at the age of eighteen.
If the new bill of higher education continues to undermine the French taboo on selection, one might wonder how educators at all levels will respond, especially if there are no additional funds provided to help them undertake new responsibilities. The reform will undoubtedly revive the ongoing debate about institutional autonomy in a context of scarce public funding.
Stephanie Mignot-Gerard is associate professor of Management at the IAE School of Management and IRG (University Paris Est Creteil). Her research focuses on the governance higher education institutions, the implementation of NPM-based reforms in the HE sector, the impact of rankings on HEI leaders’ behaviors. Her recent publication (with Stéphanie Chatelain-Ponroy, Christine Musselin & Samuel Sponem) is the article: “Is Commitment to Performance-based Management Compatible with Commitment to University Publicness? Academics’ Values in French Universities”, Organization Studies. (August 19, 2017).