Crit­ics take aim at Macron’s re­forms of French bac­calau­re­ate

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - david.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Unions and stu­dents have launched strikes and erected block­ades on French cam­puses in protest against re­forms of France’s high school bac­calau­re­ate, which they fear will lead to in­creased se­lec­tiv­ity in the univer­sity sys­tem.

The na­tional qual­i­fi­ca­tion, the nor­mal re­quire­ment for univer­sity en­try, was a tar­get of Em­manuel Macron dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign, with the pres­i­dent claim­ing that it failed to pre­pare young peo­ple for univer­sity and the job mar­ket.

Un­der changes an­nounced last week, stu­dents would spe­cialise ear­lier, choos­ing two ma­jor and two mi­nor sub­jects, in a bid to bet­ter pre­pare them for de­gree study, but op­po­nents see the bac­calau­re­ate

re­forms as po­ten­tially dis­ad­van­ta­geous to poorer stu­dents.

Annliese Nef, a spokes­woman for the Na­tional Union of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion (SNESUP) and a his­to­rian at the Pan­théon-sor­bonne Univer­sity – Paris 1, ar­gued that the re­forms were de­signed to make French higher ed­u­ca­tion more selec­tive and, thus, to avoid the need to pro­vide more fund­ing to cope with a de­mo­graphic bulge in stu­dent num­bers.

Another union con­cern is that the changes will dis­ad­van­tage poor stu­dents be­cause, as not ev­ery bac­calau­re­ate op­tion will be avail­able in ev­ery high school, some stu­dents could be shut out of cer­tain de­gree cour­ses. “It’s so­cial se­lec­tion in re­al­ity,” she said.

One ad­van­tage of the cur­rent na­tional, broad-based bac­calau­re­ate sys­tem is that it gives, the­o­ret­i­cally at least, ev­ery stu­dent the chance to study “what­ever you want” at univer­sity, Dr Nef said. How­ever, if stu­dents must spe­cialise at an early age, this could dis­ad­van­tage less priv­i­leged young peo­ple.

“At 14, 15, you don’t know – your fam­ily won’t know – how it works,” and this lack of aware­ness could mean that some miss out on the op­por­tu­nity to pur­sue cer­tain de­grees, she said.

At the core of the ar­gu­ment is whether France’s school-to-univer­sity tran­si­tion is up to scratch. The gov­ern­ment ar­gues that poor spe­cial­i­sa­tion at high school and the in­abil­ity to se­lect stu­dents leads to a higher ed­u­ca­tion dropout rate of about 60 per cent.

But Dr Nef ar­gued that the sys­tem was not “that bad”. Data from the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment – al­beit from 2011 – show that the com­ple­tion rate for French stu­dents is ac­tu­ally 80 per cent, one of the best in Europe and only 2 per­cent­age points be­hind the highly spe­cialised and selec­tive sys­tem of the UK.

The six in 10 stu­dents who “drop out” ac­cord­ing to the statis­tics nor­mally con­tinue with another sub­ject and go on to grad­u­ate, Dr Nef pointed out. “You can’t know what you want to do at such a young age, so it’s bet­ter to have a right to choose English for a se­mes­ter and find your way [aca­dem­i­cally], than [to have to] choose one thing and then drop out [be­cause there is no flex­i­bil­ity to change course],” she said.

Last Novem­ber, the gov­ern­ment an­nounced plans to give uni­ver­si­ties more power to se­lect stu­dents and re­quire that they at­tend prepara­tory cour­ses be­fore start­ing a course.

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