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My plan to rebuild our universities

France has set aside an extra €19bn for research and higher education. The minister in charge Valérie Pécresse explains

25 February 2010

HIGHER Education Minister Valérie Pécresse has a tough year ahead as she works out how to spend the €11 billion of new funds recently earmarked for universities and €8bn for research.

The money comes from the grand emprunt (big loan) project which sees France borrowing €22bn for a series of large investments.

Deciding on the criteria for allocating the money will be a key task this year she says, along with inviting bids for key research projects and "campus excellence" schemes.

In the meantime her ongoing projects include organising university renovations through Opération Campus and making universities more autonomous in human resources and budgeting.

She told John Gilmore that measures to make sure students pick the right courses and get into work are also a priority.

You have been encouraging universities to become autonomous which will involve greater independence and the chance to access private funding. What will this mean for the quality of French university education compared to the current system?

We now have 51 autonomous universities - over 60%. This will enable them to become better adapted to the 21st Century.

They will be able to recruit teaching staff faster - in six months instead of around 18 - and will be more closely linked to their economic and social environment and able to establish business partnerships.

You mentioned private funds - 20 private partnership projects have been established since 2008. About 30 more are being set up, which will improve the scope of courses offered and facilities.

Universities of all sizes and all kinds (scientific, literary, multidisciplinary) have shown their interest in these programmes and have succeeded in making links with local small and medium-sized businesses as well as multinational companies.

These programmes have already enabled the universities involved to raise almost e60 million euros.

Eighty-five per cent of students taking the baccalauréat [end of school exam] pass it, which entitles them to go to university, but then there is a high drop-out rate. The current system of automatic entitlement, encouraging people to sign up with cheap entry costs just for many to fail seems a waste of money. What is the solution?

I decided to evaluate this crucial situation from the first day I became Minister for Higher Education.

I noticed that only half of those entering universities pass the first year exams [some drop out, some change courses and some re-take the year].

This was unacceptable. After starting the modernisation of how our universities function, we have launched a wide-ranging scheme called Réussir en Licence [Succeeding in your Bachelor’s Degree] in order to fight failure at university.

We earmarked €730 million for 2008-2012 to offer five extra-hours a week per student of teaching or tutorial support from staff.

We realise however that fighting failure also means advising students better, which is why we created the Orientation Active scheme in lycées [an advice scheme in secondary schools to help students choose the best university courses for their abilities] and the possibility of switching subjects during the university year, to offer a real second chance.

We are reinforcing the help offered to students in order to make the transition between lycée and university easier, through the creation of tutors who can discuss any problems students may be facing in courses or university life with them.

The president of the Sorbonne said in 2008 that a fifth of French university students do not attend lectures. It is sometimes claimed that many of these are people with grants, who are more interested in getting the money than studying. Should there not be heavy penalties for this and should grants not be awarded by factors like merit and diligence rather than just parents’ revenues?

Stricter measures have already been put in place and we have increased attendance checks.

I strongly oppose the allegation that grant students are only interested in obtaining the grant.

These are often students from difficult backgrounds, who study hard and succeed.

I would add that merit is taken into account - the ministry has created a merit grant, on top of the usual social ones, to help those most deserving students who have particularly difficult social and financial problems.

In the case of people receiving these different grants, naturally we do run checks on their diligence in their studies.

A television report last year highlighted that at some universities special grammar lessons have to be arranged for first year students, as their level is not up to scratch. How is it possible for a student to pass their bac without being able to write properly?

The baccalauréat is a very good diploma, which requires good knowledge and significant aptitude. Nevertheless, some students may need, at the start of their university life, more individual help to solve some problems.

This is in line with the Réussir en Licence programme, which offers tutoring sessions throughout the university year, when the student can ask important questions to make sure the year goes smoothly.

To improve the level of students who arrive at university, should we make the bac more difficult?

No, the bac already provides a suitable level of selection. The issue is choice of course.

We have to help the students make the right choice from the start. It is one of the aims of Réussir en Licence and of Orientation Active.

We have also put in place since last year Admission Post-Bac [a web-based service] which has so far enabled 70,000 lycée students to have individual careers and study advice and made them aware of the different services available to answer their questions.

The aim is not necessarily that lycée students enter higher education, but that they succeed in their studies and find the right niche.

Should we reduce the number of students? Some people go to university lacking the motivation and capacity for long studies, while there is need in some sectors of the economy for more vocational skills.

The baccalauréat must remain the gateway for entering higher education. In order to make sure the courses offered at university are adapted to the needs of the labour market they are very regularly re-evaluated by the ministry in consultation with universities.

For a few years now a significant effort has also been made to clarify the content and names of courses so they are more understandable and to decrease the number of differently named ones. We are carrying this effort on.

The high number of well-qualified young people out of work suggests there is still a problem in terms of courses being tailored to the work environment.

We have chosen to make getting people into work a priority. Among our aims for higher education this is a top priority. Career planning is becoming a vital part of students’ curriculum from this year.

I have launched a study across all universities into the work destinations of students so we can better inform future students on the actual work opportunities related to each field of study. From now on, they will know what those graduates in their field of study went on to do.

The French education system, from lycée up, is notable for the long hours of study involved, leaving little time for other interests. Is it not too rigid in this respect?

Timetables for primary and secondary education are under the Ministry of National Education’s responsibility.

However, you seem to be contradicting yourself when you cast doubt on the level of lycée students passing the bac but then suggest reducing the number of hours.

In the classes préparatoires [post-bac studies which prepare the student for entrance exams to the prestigious grandes écoles] and certain fields of higher education - I’m thinking of medicine in particular - a high number of hours is vital in order to get the student ready for their exams and to succeed in them. I would add that we strongly encourage students to practise extra-curricular activities, in particular to play sport.

We have targeted the renovation of university sporting facilities as part of the government’s economic relaunch scheme.

You have said you wish to see improved foreign language skills in the French education system at secondary and university level. However native English-speakers find it hard for their qualifications to be accepted for them to teach in French schools. It is often beneficial for a language to be taught by a native speaker, so is this something you want to address at university level?

This issue is more related to primary and secondary-school teaching than to university teaching.

One thing is for sure: we have a tradition of cooperation in education with the UK.

The 2003 Touquet agreement, relating to cooperation over teacher training, was renewed last year. This includes exchange programmes between teachers during their training period, during which British ones teach in our secondary schools.

This is an important commitment we will naturally carry on with.

You have to pass an exam in order to enter public service [such as teaching], but experience gained abroad is taken into account, which can lead to an exemption for the need for French professional training, providing the exams are passed successfully. For those who wish to teach in private schools, the employer checks the candidate’s abilities.

It remains the case though that many university-educated and trade-skilled British and other foreign people moving to France, regularly report that their qualifications are meaningless here, as only French ones are accepted for the majority of jobs. The only possibility is generally part-time work, or setting up your own business. In Britain, French qualifications are as equally acceptable for a post as British ones.

French universities are now part of the licence-master-doctorat (LND) system, which is recognised throughout Europe as part of the Bologna Process [a European scheme to make countries’ higher education systems more compatible]. British diplomas are very well-recognised in France.

Furthermore, Great Britain is one of the top countries chosen by French students who wish to study for a year in a European country within the Erasmus exchange programme.

No discrimination can be made by an employer because of foreign qualifications. Just like France, Great Britain is part of the Bologna Process, which aims to make the mobility of students easier. It is however the employer’s task to decide whether the qualifications put forward are adapted to the requirements of a job. Finally, regulated professions in France and in Great Britain are governed by the 2005/36/CE directive on qualification recognition which means that there is no legal obstacle linked to having a British diploma and getting a job in France.

When will we see a French Oxford or Cambridge, able to compete with the best in Europe? The grandes écoles [small, elite higher education bodies requiring long, specialised preparatory studies after the bac to take their entrance exams] are not really comparable. Cambridge, for example, has 20,000 students and does not require classes préparatoires.

This is precisely the aim of Opération Campus, in which the president has decided to invest €5 billion.

Eighty-three universities and 225 other establishments form today’s higher education system.

The reform will group them into higher education research centres [see box, left].

So far 15 groups have had bids accepted and been given money to start projects this year or next.

We are shaping a higher education map where important centres like Lyon, Toulouse, Paris-Centre or Saclay [in Essonne, south-west of Paris] will extend their influence in Europe and worldwide.

It is planned that more groups will be set up in coming years and all universities will eventually belong to one.

VALERIE PECRESSE - PROFILE

- Born 1967, Neuilly-sur-Seine
- Graduate of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (top business school) and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (grande école producing senior civil servants and politicians)
- As well as French, speaks English, Russian and Japanese.
- Married, with three children.

Career
- MP for the Yvelines from June 2002
- Regional Councillor Ile-de-France (she is the UMP Party candidate to lead the council in the 2010 elections)
- National UMP spokeswomen in 2004
- Higher Education and Research Minister from May 2007

Policies
- Her schemes include a 2007 law allowing universities to become autonomous.
- Réussir en Licence, launched in 2007 is aimed at lowering drop-out rates
- Opération Campus invited universities in a certain geographical area to group to bid for funds to help them collectively become international beacons of excellence for higher education. The money is for renovations, new buildings and setting up links, both physical (eg. transport) and for closer working. These pôles de recherche et d’enseignement supérieur hope to gain greater international renown above their constituent parts. For example, in Lyon the Université de Lyon includes many existing universities, grandes écoles and other establishments.

Controversies
- University students and staff held strikes last year over plans to reform the status of lecturer-researchers, with staff fearing they could be forced to spend too much time teaching to the detriment of research and that university presidents would be given too much power to dictate hours. Other issues included staff cuts and plans to reform methods of training and recruitment of teaching staff. Modifications were agreed with unions and Pécresse has promised no jobs would be lost in 2010.
- Received the 2008 Carpette Anglaise (English ‘doormat’ prize) for saying "French is a language in decline and we have to break the taboo on English in European Institutions and French universities by making intensive teaching of it obligatory."

THE UNION REACTION

LEADING students union Unef says it remains radically opposed to Valérie Pécresse’s financial policies but supports her idea of more help for students.

Strikes and protests have paralysed universities in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
Union spokeswoman Annabelle Janodet said: “The government’s policies are aimed at making universities compete with each other so we will end up with a two-speed system.

“You have Opération Campus and financing based on performance for big universities which aim to be in the Shanghai Classification [ranking of the world’s best universities] while most of the universities will be neglected and will not be able to do their job properly.

“More autonomy will also encourage competitiveness and inequality. We will end up with diplomas from certain universities having more recognition than others and we think that’s unacceptable.”

Ms Janodet said they agreed with the objectives of Réussir en Licence.

“The idea is to have half of a given generation getting degrees, but it was launched in 2007 and because there has not been enough investment into universities the failure rates are no better and the students have seen no more hours of lessons and no extra tutoring.

“What’s worse is that 900 jobs were axed last year. How can she say she wants to give students extra support and stop drop-outs and at the same time cut staffing?”

Ms Janodet added that the union thought priority should be given to extra support for people from disadvantaged backgrounds so they do not drop out.

“There’s high unemployment and having a degree helps you get a job, so it is important that the maximum number of young people have one. The people who succeed and do not drop out are the ones with a certain financial capital and a certain cultural background, who are well supported by their parents.”

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