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Education: French Government Administers A Dual University System

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 14 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In France, virtually all institutions of higher learning are owned, financed and controlled by the national government. But there are actually two distinctly different forms of French higher education. One is for the masses, the other for a select group of outstanding students.

Under the first system, more than 90 percent of France's current two million university students (out of a total French population of 58 million) pay the government relatively small amounts for their studies. Generally, the academic fees amount to about $150 a year and rise to roughly twice that amount if the student chooses to be covered by social-security health benefits. But most students nevertheless cannot support themselves and have a tough time getting substantial loans. Many therefore end up working their way through university, which substantially slows down their academic progress.

The other system, reflecting the country's elitist tradition and serving the remaining 10 percent or so of students, involves France's vaunted "grandes ecoles". The government pays select students who win national competitive tests large sums that, in principle, are repaid through later work in national research centers, institutes, laboratories, ministries and the like. For example, a student at Paris' Ecole Normale Superieure -- a "grande ecole" with both scientific and literary branches-- is paid $1,500 a month for up to five years of attendance. He is expected, but not legally obliged, to then devote at least five years of his life to government service.

Although no exact figures are available, France's grandes ecoles clearly eat up a disproportionate amount of the nation's education budget. That's because they continue to provide the nation with an elite that occupies the highest ranks in universities and research centers. Even more important, perhaps, they provide the government with its senior bureaucrats and often its highest elected leaders. Thus both conservative President Jacques Chirac and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin are graduates of the elite National School of Administration.

In contrast to the relative luxury of a grande ecole, life among the masses of French students currently in university is usually not an easy one. University lecturer Deborah Blocker, who teaches undergraduate French literature in the eastern city of Rouen, says of her students:

"Their situation is generally very uncertain. They are not even able to purchase the books that I ask them to read, books that don't cost more than $70 annually. But they simply don't have it. So very often they simply make photocopies....These students come usually either from working-class families or, more often, from families where the father is a low-ranking government bureaucrat or an artisan --families with small salaries and little to give their children for education."

Many of these students, Blocker and other French professors say, live in university dormitories subsidized by the government but often in run-down condition. For their accommodation the students pay about $175 a month. That together with their university fees and social security payments, plus another $275 a month for meals in the university canteen, can all add up to well over $8,000 a year.

Relatively few French students are able to offset these costs with substantial loans --as is the case, for instance, in the U.S. and Germany. Commercial loans are difficult to arrange because bankers know that, in a country of chronically high unemployment (officially 11 percent, unofficially well over 15 percent), one in three graduating students faces a long period of joblessness.

There are some government loans available, but only for up to $265 a month. For years, French students have demanded that their social status be recognized officially --as it is in Denmark, for instance-- which would provide them automatic government aid. Every university student in Denmark, poor or rich, receives close to $400 a month from the government to pursue his studies.

What all this means, says university lecturer Blocker, is that:

"Most of my students who don't come from well-to-do families have to work during their studies --up to 70 percent of them. They do baby-sitting, they work in fast-food restaurants, or in the university library -- for $70 a month, which is not much. They are constantly short of money -- true of students elsewhere, perhaps, but nothing has been done in France to improve their situation."

Analysts say that successive French governments have been quite aware of the problem of university students forced to work. But many believe governments are not unhappy with the slowness of their progress up the academic ladder. The longer the working students take in earning a degree, the longer it will be before they are inscribed officially on the unemployment roles, thereby creating difficulties for governments who know that for the electorate no issue is more important than jobs.

(With institutions of higher education in former Communist countries facing a period of transition, particularly in the area of financing, this five-part series is designed to provide an insight into how the costs of higher education are met in several western countries.)