Lessons of Paris '68 forgotten by universities

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IN MAY 1968, French universities were overcrowded, bureaucratic, unimaginative, unambitious and treated their students like children. For these, and other less tangible, less personal reasons, students revolted and almost brought down the French government.

In May 1998, the French government has been presented with a damning report which states, in effect, that French universities are over-crowded, bureaucratic, unimaginative, unambitious and treat their students like children.

Few French commentators have dwelt on the irony of the timing of the report, drawn up by a committee headed by Jacques Attali, former adviser to President Francois Mitterrand. There has been a rich flora of books and articles studying the legacy of the May '68 revolution. But only one article - in the news magazine Marianne - has dwelt at length on the paradoxical, and generally malign, effect of the rebellion on French universities, where the revolt began.

One of the many slogans of May 1968 was "Selection, piege a cons" - "Selection is a trap for idiots". The educational reforms, and fashions, which followed were heavily influenced by this viewpoint. The baccalaureate, the equivalent of A-levels, which confers an automatic right to enter higher education, was simplified. The proportion of young people entering colleges of some kind exploded (it is now more than 40 per cent, of whom more than one- third fail in the first year).

In the 1970s, many French universities offered unchallenging courses in which everyone was guaranteed to succeed. But much of French higher education remains plodding and fact-oriented.

Lucy Reid, a British undergraduate studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, is startled by the low standard offered by lecturers and accepted by students. "My lectures on Italian cinema are typical; they last for three hours and consist of lists of films, facts and dates. Everyone writes down everything the lecturer says. There is no analysis or questioning."

Paradoxically, the post-1968 dilution of French "universite ordinaires" also led to a reinforcement of educational selection and elitism. More than ever, the "Grandes Ecoles", the network of state-run, top-class, specialist, colleges, siphon off the best students, often from the wealthier families. The Grandes Ecoles take 4 per cent of the students and 30 per cent of the state budget for higher education.

At the apex of the system is the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, which takes the best students from the other Grandes Ecoles. Students who come near to the top of the class in ENA are catapulted into the commanding heights of French politics, administration and business. Many students who graduate from the run-of-the-mill universities - four out of 10 never do - find themselves with few practical skills and a "diplome" which is little respected by employers.

The disparities have been increased in the past three decades, one egalitarian revolt compounding the contrary results of another. Mr Attali is himself a product of the system: he was a "pupil" at ENA while Paris burnt in 1968. His report proposes reforms intended to boost the quality of the bread-and-butter universities and close the gap with the Grandes Ecoles. Unless something is done, the report says, France is doomed "to slip little by little down the slope of irreversible decline".