John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

Saturday 17 September 2011 12:29

Does experience teach you anything? Is happiness preferable to the truth? Why is the French higher education system, theoretically devoted to equality, an elitist mess?

Almost all 17- and 18-year-olds in France wrestled with the first two questions when the dreaded philosophy examination started the baccalauréat season, the equivalent to A-levels, last week.

The third question is mine. But it is not just mine.

Many of the 517,000 kids taking the "bac" this month were on strike until just over a month ago. They were protesting against a government plan to make it easier to hire, and fire, young people.

Fair enough. It was an ill-considered law. I had a problem with the protests all the same. I tried to make my point, fruitlessly, to some of the charming kids on the streets.

Why protest about something new when so much of what is old and entrenched in the French system is stacked against you? The same argument is made, much more eloquently, by the president of the Sorbonne university in Paris in a book published this month. Jean-Robert Pitte's book is called Jeunes, On Vous Ment! (Kids, they are lying to you!) Let me try to condense its 130 pages into a few lines.

In France, a nation of equality, state education is free and open to all, with no selection. The primary and secondary education systems - through which my three children are progressing happily - have many problems (which system does not?) but broadly work.

Higher education in France is a disaster, unworthy of a developed nation. A few thousand of those 517,000 kids taking the "bac" this month will push their way through into the elite, well-funded, non-university system called the grandes écoles or other well-regarded business schools.

In theory, these youngsters are the crème de la crème. In reality, they are clever, yes, but also the kids of the crème: children of well-off or highly motivated parents who can afford to let them spend another two years at school (until the age of 20) in "preparatory classes" for the grandes écoles. Graduates of these institutions have the pick of jobs in France, in the public and private sectors.

One in three of those taking the bac this month is sitting a "professional" form of the exam, which may or may not help them to go straight into jobs, from farming to hairdressing. Almost all the rest will fall, like lemmings, into the general university system.

In French universities, there are no state loans but the fees are very low. Everyone who passes the bac is guaranteed a place. You can, more or less, choose whatever course you like.

Result: catastrophe. Because the fees are low, the level of teaching is low, with little teacher-student contact. Students are herded into giant amphitheatres where they blindly take notes. The notion that there is no selection is an institutional hypocrisy. About 40 per cent of students are thrown out after the first year.

Vocational studies, such as medicine or law, are well respected but the first year failure rate is even more crippling. In other subjects, even if you graduate, your chances of finding a job are poor. Employers have a low opinion of general university degrees, especially in arts subjects to which many students flock.

M. Pitte says fees should be raised - with subsidies for the needy - to give universities more money. Universities should select their students. The entry classes for the grandes écoles should be moved from schools to the universities, to boost their prestige.

These are all sensible suggestions. They have all been rejected, not just by other university administrators but also by students' organisations as impossibly reactionary and "liberal" (the French codeword for "un-French").

Student unions, and many teachers, are blindly devoted to the fake equality of the present system. The UK education system is far from fair. A recent study suggests the minority educated in private schools have a growing stranglehold on the top jobs. Only in France, however, could an elitist system be defended on the grounds that it is egalitarian.

In 1968, Alain Peyrefitte, the education minister, said the French university system was "like organising a shipwreck to find out who could swim". Reforms made since then have put more passengers on to the ship and burnt the lifeboats. Does experience teach you anything?

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments