(mis)selection at French universities

There was an most relevant article in the weekend edition of Le Monde about the absurd posture of French laws, governments and universities about prohibiting any selection at the entrance to university. Under the current regulation, anyone with the baccalauréat degree can apply to any first year program and expect to be accepted. Since this is impossible, universities have to discriminate based on the current address and, if there still are too many applicants, resort to random sampling. To avoid selecting based on high school records or even the final grades at the State level baccalauréat. Or the same universities have to invent some local degrees that are not recognised as national (State) degrees. This is more than absurd, obviously, as it drives most of the best students away from the university system into private schools or abroad. (Paris-Dauphine chose a few years ago to opt out from being a national university, in order to select its students and is thus private in this respect if public in its funding.)

One extreme [and personal] example of this Kafkaian (dis)organisation is provided by medical studies. Anyone with a baccalauréat with any major (science, humanities, carpentry, …) can on principle enter a medical school! Obviously, there must be some selection before too many patients die or too many doctors graduate and the way it operates is as follows: a huge number of students enter the first year of medical studies where they follow mass teaching, with courses mostly on video and tutoring from second year students. They take two one-day exams in December and May with only multiple answer questions. And about 10% of those students are accepted in second year… Among the 90% who fail, about 40% are allowed to try again. Once. [Our daughter thus spent two years of intense bachotage to enter the second year. Congrats to her for her dedication and success!] In the end, French doctors are certainly not worse than others, but this remains a waste of time, energy and money for a huge number of people, with no other argument than an ideological call to égalité. Which translates in practice into a huge inequality between students who can afford private tuition and massive family logistic support [as we found out!] and those who cannot. Furthermore, some universities are bursting at the seams with the number of first year medical students, in constant augmentation despite the 10% success rate. And are thus considering introducing random sampling as well! Using the (costly) baccalauréat to restrict the number of accepted first years students would seem reasonable and rational, as would a more directive orientation of high school students as advocated by Le Monde. An unlikely move, given the potential political impact of the measure.

6 Responses to “(mis)selection at French universities”

  1. Thomas Piketty wrote a tribune in Le Monde of last weekend (July 10) that echoes these remarks.

  2. I’m relieved to see that the French are even crazier than the Germans.

  3. Obviously, there must be some selection before too many patients die

    You might be interested to know that in the Netherlands selection into medical school has historically been through lotteries, and a high school diploma — as in France — is enough to participate.

    While these lotteries are weighted in the sense that the probability of winning depends on the average high school grade, the chance of getting is still in the 0.3-0.5 range for those with the lowest grades.

    Once people are admitted there is essentially no drop-out, also for the “weak” applicants. High school grades also appear to matter very little when it comes to doctors’ earnings.

    While this doesn’t show that lotteries do not kill people, it does suggest that relative to a system with selection on grades little is lost and maybe something is gained in terms of giving prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds (with weaker grades, but not necessarily weaker ability and motivation) access to the medical profession.

    Food for thought.

    More details here.

    • Thank you for this input! Reading from wikipedia, I would add that “based on public statistics, patient polls, and independent research the Netherlands arguably has the best health care system of 32 European countries” so random selection has no negative impact!

  4. To me, this is linked to a double problem of the French society. First, to pretend that everyone has the same opportunities, even in face of the fact that not everyone can afford a second try. Second, the impossibility to make profound changes.

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