Les mots justes

France’s HE min­is­ter on Macron’s vi­sion

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Jack.grove@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

France’s new higher ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter has vowed to tackle the coun­try’s 60 per cent dropout rate for un­der­grad­u­ates, but re­sisted calls to in­tro­duce more selec­tion on en­try.

In her first English-lan­guage in­ter­view, Frédérique Vi­dal (pic­tured right) told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion that Em­manuel Macron’s new ad­min­is­tra­tion will in­vest about

E450 mil­lion (£400 mil­lion) in re­form­ing un­der­grad­u­ate de­grees to re­duce the enor­mous fail­ure rate.

Pre­vi­ously a molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist and pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Nice Sophia An­tipo­lis, Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal is the first univer­sity head in France’s his­tory to be­come min­is­ter of higher ed­u­ca­tion and re­search, re­flect­ing Mr Macron’s de­sire to have ex­perts drawn from “civil so­ci­ety” mak­ing up half his Cab­i­net.

“I had never been in­volved in pol­i­tics…but when Em­manuel Macron launched his move­ment, for the first time, some­one was say­ing what I was think­ing,” she told THE in Paris.

Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal said that she ac­cepted the min­is­te­rial po­si­tion be­cause she shared the pres­i­dent’s vi­sion to “trans­form uni­ver­si­ties, make more links to in­dus­try and [en­cour­age] en­trepreneur­ship and in­no­va­tion”.

Lead­ing a min­istry with an an­nual bud­get of about E24.5 bil­lion and over­see­ing 1.6 mil­lion stu­dents, Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal be­lieves that her sta­tus as a po­lit­i­cal out­sider, with no de­sire for pro­mo­tion, will al­low her to confront some of French higher ed­u­ca­tion’s most deep-seated – and po­lit­i­cally con­tentious – prob­lems, which have ar­guably been avoided by her pre­de­ces­sors.

“The idea of hav­ing peo­ple from civil so­ci­ety – and not from pol­i­tics – is that peo­ple will do things with­out hav­ing to think about their po­lit­i­cal ca­reer,” said Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal. “One of the main chal­lenges for higher ed­u­ca­tion is teach­ing and learn­ing – we need to trans­form our bach­e­lor’s-level pro­grammes.”

As part of the E450 mil­lion in­vest­ment, uni­ver­si­ties could be en­cour­aged to of­fer more “ma­jor-mi­nor” and joint de­grees, which would en­able stu­dents to switch sub­jects if they strug­gled in their cho­sen field rather than drop­ping out. More re­sources will be al­lo­cated to ca­reers ad­vice to en­sure that stu­dents are choos­ing de­grees suited to their in­ter­ests and abil­i­ties, Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal said.

How­ever, the re­forms will not in­tro­duce more selec­tion to French uni­ver­si­ties, which cur­rently al­low any stu­dent pass­ing their high school bac­calau­re­ate (the equiv­a­lent of about three Cs at A level) to progress to most univer­sity cour­ses – a sys­tem blamed by some for the coun­try’s ter­ri­ble stu­dent pro­gres­sion rates, over­stretched lec­tur­ers and in­suf­fi­cient lev­els of stu­dent sup­port.

“The idea is not to have selec­tion but to bet­ter in­form and help stu­dents to suc­ceed on en­try,” said Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal. How­ever, is this not duck­ing the is­sue? Is it naive to ex­pect a stu­dent with a low-scor­ing “bac” who chooses an aca­dem­i­cally de­mand­ing pro­gramme, such as one in Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal’s own dis­ci­pline of bi­ol­ogy, to stay the course?

“If you want to do bi­ol­ogy and do not yet have the com­pe­tence, [we must ask] how we can give [stu­dents] that com­pe­tence,” an­swered Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal.

Of­fer­ing more di­verse cour­ses would al­low stu­dents to stay in the univer­sity sys­tem, she ex­plained. “When stu­dents are 18 or 19, some of them know ex­actly what they want to do, but oth­ers don’t – we pro­pose to con­struct a bach­e­lor’slevel [sys­tem] with more plu­ral­ity,” she added, point­ing out that youth un­em­ploy­ment is just 5.7 per cent for those with a de­gree but 17.9 per cent for those with­out one.

With Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal’s min­is­te­rial brief up­graded to in­clude in­no­va­tion, she will also be charged with lead­ing ef­forts to en­sure that uni­ver­si­ties work more closely with in­dus­try. It fol­lows her highly re­garded work in the French Riviera, where she brought to­gether re­search cen­tres, busi­ness schools, high-tech busi­nesses and the Univer­sity of Nice Sophia An­tipo­lis to form the Univer­sity of Côte d’Azur in 2012, a “ComUE” fed­er­a­tion of in­sti­tu­tions re­cently awarded E580 mil­lion in long-term fund­ing from France’s lat­est ex­cel­lence ini­tia­tive.

“It is a new model of univer­sity that com­bines strong ba­sic re­search and ap­plied re­search, too,” said Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal, who added that she was pleased to see Côte d’Azur re­searcher Alain Bril­let win France’s high­est sci­en­tific ac­co­lade – the CNRS Gold Medal, awarded an­nu­ally by the French National Cen­ter for Sci­en­tific Re­search – last month de­spite the ap­plied na­ture of much of the univer­sity’s work.

“This [model] is pos­si­ble in Nice, but not in all [re­gions], but each univer­sity can build their own pro­ject ac­cord­ing to their own in­no­va­tions,” she said.

On Brexit, Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal said that she was, as a sci­en­tist, “very sad” about the UK’s de­ci­sion to leave the Euro­pean Union, adding that UK sci­en­tist friends had con­tacted her to ex­press their dis­may.

Could a new post-Brexit en­tente cor­diale in­clude a be­spoke An­glo-French ar­range­ment to al­low greater in­ter­change be­tween UK and French re­searchers? Pro­fes­sor Vi­dal is, it seems, not a fan of of­fer­ing priv­i­leged deals for the UK once it leaves the EU in 2019.

“If you want to [be part] of the EU, you can­not have only the ad­van­tages, not the dis­ad­van­tages,” she said. “You can­not just choose only what in­ter­ests you.”

Slid­ing doors more ‘ma­jor-mi­nor’ de­grees will al­low stu­dents to ‘ditch and switch’

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