NANTERRE, France — There are 32,000 students at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris, but no student center, no bookstore, no student-run newspaper, no freshman orientation, no corporate recruiting system. The 480,000-volume central library is open only 10 hours a day, closed on Sundays and holidays. Only 30 of the library's 100 computers have Internet access.
May 12, 2006
Higher Learning in France Clings to Its Old Ways
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
University of Paris students begin their lesson.
NANTERRE, France — There are 32,000 students at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris, but no student center, no bookstore, no student-run newspaper, no freshman orientation, no corporate recruiting system.
The 480,000-volume central library is open only 10 hours a day, closed on Sundays and holidays. Only 30 of the library's 100 computers have Internet access.
The campus cafeterias close after lunch. Professors often do not have office hours; many have no office. Some classrooms are so overcrowded that at exam time many students have to find seats elsewhere. By late afternoon every day the campus is largely empty.
Sandwiched between a prison and an unemployment office just outside Paris, the university here is neither the best nor the worst place to study in this fairly wealthy country. Rather, it reflects the crisis of France's archaic state-owned university system: overcrowded, underfinanced, disorganized and resistant to the changes demanded by the outside world.
"In the United States, your university system is one of the drivers of American prosperity," said Claude Allègre, a former education minister who tried without success to reform French universities. "But here, we simply don't invest enough. Universities are poor. They're not a priority either for the state or the private sector. If we don't reverse this trend, we will kill the new generation."
It was student discontent on campuses across France that fired up the recent protests against a law that would have made it easier for employers to dismiss young workers. College students were driven by fear that their education was worth little and that after graduation they would not find jobs.
The protests closed or disrupted a majority of France's universities for weeks, labor unions declared solidarity and eventually the government was forced to withdraw the law.
"Universities are factories," said Christine le Forestier, 24, a 2005 graduate of Nanterre with a master's degree who has not found a stable job. "They are machines to turn out thousands and thousands of students who have learned all about theory but nothing practical. A diploma is worth nothing in the real world."
The problems stem in part from the student revolts of May 1968, which grew out of an unexceptional event at Nanterre the year before. One March evening, male students protesting the sexual segregation of the dormitories occupied the women's dormitory and were evicted by the police.
A year later, Nanterre students protesting the war in Vietnam occupied the administration building, the first such action by students at a French university. The student revolt spread, turning into a mass movement aimed at transforming the authoritarian, elitist French system of governance. Ultimately 10 million workers left their jobs in a strike that came close to forcing de Gaulle from power.
One result was that the country's university system guaranteed a free — or almost free — college education to every high school graduate who passed the baccalauréat exam. University enrollment soared. The value of a bachelor's degree plummeted.
But the state failed to invest much in buildings, facilities and professors' salaries to make the system work. Today the French government allocates about $8,500 a year to each university student, about 40 percent less than what it invests in each high school student.
Most students are required to attend the universities closest to their high schools. Although certain universities excel in specific fields of study, the course offerings in, say, history or literature are generally the same throughout the country.
Compounding the problem, France is caught between its official promotion of the republican notion of equality and its commitment to the nurturing of an elite cadre of future leaders and entrepreneurs.
Only 4 percent of French students make it into the most competitive French universities — the public "grandes écoles." But the grandes écoles, along with a swath of semiprivate preparatory schools, absorb 30 percent of the public budget.
They are well-organized, well-equipped, overwhelmingly white and upper middle class, and infused with the certainty that their graduates will take the best jobs in government and the private sector. Students are even paid to attend.
The practice in the United States of private endowments providing a large chunk of college budgets is seen as strange in France. Tuition is about $250 a year, hardly a sufficient source of income for colleges.
But asking the French to pay more of their way in college seems out of the question. When the government proposed a reform in 2003 to streamline curriculums and budgets by allowing each university more flexibility and independence, students and professors rebelled.
They saw the initiative as a step toward privatization of higher education that they feared would lead to higher fees and threaten the universal right of high school graduates to a college education. The government backed down.
At Nanterre, Alexandre Frydlender, 19, a second-year student in law and history, complained about the lack of courses in English for students of international law. But asked whether he would be willing to pay a higher fee for better services, he replied: "The university is a public service. The state must pay."
A poster that hangs throughout the campus halls echoed that sentiment: "To study is a right, not a privilege."
Professors lack the standing and the salaries of the private sector. A starting instructor can earn less than $20,000 a year; the most senior professor in France earns about $75,000 a year. Research among the faculty is not a priority.
Because students generally are required to attend the university closest to home, most do not live on campus.
At Nanterre, for example, there are only 1,050 dormitory rooms and a long waiting list. The amenities are few. Twenty-two students share three toilets, three showers and a small kitchen furnished with only a sink and a few electric burners.
"There's no place where students can hang out, no place to play cards or to watch a movie," said Jean Giraud, 20, a second-year law student who lives in one of the dorms. "People come for class and then go home."
While students are ready to protest against something they dislike, there is little sense of belonging or pride in one's surroundings. During the recent protests over the contested labor law, that attitude of alienation contributed to the destruction of property, even computers and books, at some universities.
The protests also were the latest warning to the French government and private corporations that the university system needs fixing. Officials, entrepreneurs, professors and students alike agree that too many students are stuck in majors like sociology or psychology that make it difficult to move into a different career in a stratified society like France, given the country's troubled economy.
The fear of joblessness has led many young people in different directions. Students who have the money are increasingly turning to foreign universities or private specialized schools in France, especially for graduate school. And more young people are seeking a security-for-life job with a government agency.
In a speech at the Sorbonne in late April after the labor law was rescinded, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin pledged "a new pact between the university and the French people."
Mr. de Villepin, a graduate of the École Nationale d'Administration, the grandest of the grandes écoles, promised more money and more flexibility, saying that as in the United States, a student with a master's degree in philosophy should be able to become a financial analyst.
When a student asked him to explain how he proposed to do that, Mr. de Villepin had no concrete answer. Instead he talked about the "happiness of the dog that leaves its kennel."
But flexibility is not at all the tradition in France, where students are put on fixed career tracks at an early age.
"We are caught in a world of limits where there's no such thing as the self-made man," said Claire de la Vigne, a graduate of Nanterre who is now doing graduate work at the much more prestigious Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris. "We are never taught the idea of the American dream, where everything is possible. Our guide is fear."