Seeds of reform sown in French universities. Sagging economy points up need for technical education, competition

There are no student demonstrations clogging the Left Bank this spring, no crippling strikes at the Universities of Tours or Bordeaux or Aix-en-Provence. Nevertheless, France's students -- with assists from their parents, a growing number of disgruntled educators, and an economy in transition -- are bringing the seeds of reform to the monolithic French university system. The changes are coming as large numbers of students shift away from studies in the humanities and human sciences toward the applied sciences, business, and engineering. In addition to changing student interests, a lusterless economy and dim employment prospects are encouraging a new spirit of competition and individual success among students. It is a spirit that many Frenchmen want to see carried over to the country's 70, nominally noncompetitive universities.

The evolution in student interests is not unique to France. But it is more striking in a country that has long held suspect any equation of higher education with entrepreneurship or attaining wealth. It accompanies a growing realization among people here that to pull out of an economic slump, France will have to compete on the world market and in the fields of advanced technologies.

``France is right now realizing that, from now on, a country's standing [on the international scene] and its level of economic well-being will be determined by the education and qualifications of its people, especially in the new technologies,'' says Roland Carraz, the Education Ministry's secretary of state for technical and technological education.

Up to now, France has seen many students leave school at age 16, with few of them getting past the tough baccalaur'eat exam at the end of high school and on to the university. Last year, for example, only 64 percent of the 263,000 baccalaur'eat candidates succeeded -- which means that less than 15 percent of the high school population (about 1.17 million) had higher education as an option. But the country is finding that not only are there fewer jobs today for students without a high school education -- 50 percent are still unemployed a year after leaving school -- but that despite double-digit unemployment, France is experiencing a dearth of technicians and engineers as well.

In light of this, the government's goal is to more than double -- to 2 million -- the number of students in its universities by the turn of the century.

According to Mr. Carraz, over the next decade the government will double -- from 120,000 to 240,000 -- the number of spaces for students seeking at least two years of technical training after high school. The government has also called for a 15 percent increase in entering engineering students next fall and for the creation of a number of universities specializing in technological training and research.

While working to double the number of university students, the Socialist government is also warming to calls for greater autonomy among universities within the nationwide system.

One goal is to make the universities true competitors with the grandes 'ecoles (``great schools''), the handful of graduate-level exam schools in engineering, business, science, and technology that each year take the top layer of French students and create the country's restricted elite.

This could be a tough nut to crack: Surveys show that most companies -- and even the sizable French public administration -- rarely give the universities more than a sniff before moving on to the grandes 'ecoles to do their hiring.

On the other hand, the notions of competition and autonomy are generally anathema to the large corps of university professors and administrators who have been strong supporters of the beleaguered Socialists. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of educators and critics of the highly centralized system say that without these qualities, the universities will have a hard enough time throwing off their reputation as options of the last resort, let alone actually rivaling the grandes 'ecoles.

Among the changes critics call for:

Greater autonomy for individual universities to develop areas of expertise and to develop strong ties to local industries, schools, and other organizations.

Replacing the national diploma with one that credits the institution where the student completed his work. Many observers believe the resulting competition among schools could do more to improve them than any other action.

``Right now they maintain this fiction that the diplomas are of equal value, no matter what university they're from,'' says Jean-Paul Laron, director of L'Ecole de Hautes Etudes de Commerce, at the apex of French business schools. ``But just ask the people who are doing the hiring out there,'' he adds. ``They're well aware that all the schools aren't of equal stature.''

Giving each university more say in which students are accepted -- and similarly, giving students more say in what school they attend.

Multiplying the university's sources of revenue, to include alumni contributions, research and business contracts, and possibly even some form of tuition.

Increasing a student's chances of reaching his goal by multiplying the number of paths he might take to reach it. And working to expand the sense of what constitutes intellectual excellence.

This last point is emphasized in a recent report on education by the professors of the Coll`ege de France, perhaps the country's most prestigious institution of learning. The report stresses that the scientific fields can no longer be considered to have a monopoly on excellence.

Pierre Bourdieu, sociologist at the Coll`ege de France and editor of its report, says too many professors have used a ``democratization'' of the education system to ``make life easy for themselves.'' A well-known critic of the country's professorial corps, Mr. Bourdieu says the report's release was timed in hopes that it would make the university system an issue in legislative elections next March. ``There have been many other reports,'' says Bourdieu. If this one is listened to, he says, it will be because students and families and even the government are starting to say, ``The French university can't go on like this.''

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