Everybody in France can go on strike, even people who do not (yet) have a job ? students included. Over the last few weeks, many universities closed down because they were blocked by students, protesting against reforms in the education system. The French government is taking initiatives to allow companies to invest in universities, which students see as a threat to the independence of higher education. They are scared that tuition fees will go up from hardly anything today towards English or even American standards in the future.
Public education in France is not as highly accredited as the health system. Substantial unemployment amongst young graduates proves what Igor (29, photo) is telling me: universities in France do not educate people to prepare them for working life but simply for the purpose of educating them. Igor calls the system very little interactive and compares it to a machine producing graduates, whether anybody is waiting for them or not. Igor himself studied law and art history at the same time, later followed by sociology. None of those specializations gave him access to a job. He is now happy to be a music producer, even if it has nothing to do with any of the studies he did.
`French universities do not prepare students for working life`
French education is highly fragmented and it has a name for almost every single year. Children start attending ?cole maternelle at the age of 3. At the age of 6, they go through five years of elementary school (CP, CE1, CE2, CM1, CM2) followed by four years of Coll?ge, lower secondary school (counting down from 6th year until 3rd year). At the age of 15, they will opt to learn a basic profession or to prepare for further education. The last three years of secondary education are called Lyc?e, counting down from 2nd year until Terminale. During these last three years, pupils choose which subjects they will follow to prepare for their BAC, short for Baccalaur?at, which they will normally pass at the age of 17 or 18. According to the student`s choice, the BAC can be either professional or general, with the general one specifically designed to give access to higher education.
All throughout one`s life, BAC remains a very important point of reference. Any diploma a student obtains after that will be related to it. Vacancies for jobs are also advertised in BAC+x, with x standing for the number of years after BAC. The most likely combinations are BAC+2, BAC+3 (Licence), BAC+5 (Master) and BAC+8 (Doctorat).
After passing the BAC, students can apply for advanced education in a number of institutes, studies or even combinations of work and school (alternance), the latter however being more common however to mid-level education than higher education.
University studies are generally inexpensive and accessible to anyone holding a BAC with reasonable marks in the appropriate subjects. Popular studies include anything related to commerce and law. Not because students are so fond of these subjects: many choose these subjects by default, because they know it will give them a good starting point for their careers. Social studies like psychology, sociology, social sciences, history, literature and philosophy are remarkably popular. They do not prepare for any specific profession and are therefore by no means a guarantee for finding a job in the same domain ? except for those who want to become teachers of their subject.
Private higher education
Much more prestigious than the overcrowded public universities is the system of the Grandes Ecoles. They educate people to become engineers, in institutions that are partly funded by the state, partly by companies and also for a good share, by the students themselves. Tuition fees can be extremely high, depending on which Ecole you go to. Some however have reversed the policy and pay students to study at their institution.
Getting access to an Ecole is not easy. It usually takes two year of preparatory classes, followed by entry exams at the Ecoles. These two years can be very stressful, with seven to eight hours of class per day. Students are only allowed to submit their detailed requests a limited number of times.
Unlike the universities, the Grandes Ecoles are specifically designed to prepare students for their future professional lives. They offer internships, exchanges, networking facilities. An engineer`s diplome (typically BAC+5) usually serves as an entry ticket into the higher echelons of French society, whether in commerce, science or politics. Graduates of Grandes Ecoles can furthermore count on assistance of a network of fellow anciens ?l?ves (alumni) who are expected to provide preferred treatment to job candidates from the same school.
Fran?ois (23) and Clarisse (24) both studied geography at university and are now looking for a job. They count on an average six months to one year, which they say would be a reasonable expectation. `It makes quite a difference from the students leaving the Grandes Ecoles. Even though we spent the same number of years studying. Students who leave the Grandes Ecoles usually find a job even before they actually finish their studies. At university, it is difficult to mix internships with the normal lectures and exchanges are rare for those who do not study languages.`
Clarisse reproaches the public education system of being unable to prepare people for professional life: `We are either too specialised or too generalised, and have no professional experience when we leave school.` The also criticise the lack of foreign language material in university. Fran?ois says: `I learnt some English in secondary school, but after that I did not have any exposure to it for three years. That is a shame, it would be so much better to have some material in English as well, just to get used to the professional vocabulary.`
While the Grandes Ecoles are in the luxurious position of offering classes in small groups, universities are overcrowded and leave no room for the individual. Teachers do not teach, they simply instruct. `We have many bad teachers and the system is not very interactive at all. There is no flexibility and people are not encouraged to ask questions and actually learn something rather than train themselves to reproduce information`, say Fran?ois and Clarisse. They both support the involvement of companies in co-financing universities. They think that involving companies will allow universities to adjust their curriculums and to improve their study materials.
On the side
Christophe (21) tells me that many students use the beginning of their university career as an excuse to move away from their parents, and to a different city if they like. Their autonomy is usually artificial, as parents are likely to cover their expenses. For those whose parents are not rich enough, the state provides grants. Alexandre (20) believes that public universities are therefore accessible to anybody who wants to study and has the intellectual capacity to do so.
Students do not often look for part time jobs. First of all, they prefer to concentrate on their studies. Secondly, public universities often have inflexible time tables that may even reach into the evening hours. Absence is often measured, and anyone who has exceeded a defined maximum is not allowed to participate in the exam. At public universities, internships are not compulsory, which means that many people graduate quickly but enter the labour market with no experience whatsoever. The only way around it is for students to look for jobs and internships during their summer holidays.
And so the French education keeps spitting out new elite members on one side, and unprepared graduates on the other side. Fortunately, French companies are encouraged to offer their employees training programs to keep developing human capital. Finding a first job may be difficult but things tend to get a little easier afterwards. Nevertheless, your BAC + x level will remain to a large extent decisive for all of the rest of your career.
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