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Higher Education

The needs of a new, modernized post-industrial economy required an overhaul of higher education. Scholarship aid (bourses) was vastly increased, making it possible for larger numbers of less well-to-do young men and women to attend universities. The advent of the post-war Welfare State had important repercussions on university structures.

Reform of higher education, consequently, became a matter of urgency, and the 1970s saw its beginnings; this reform has become on-going. In fact, it appears more and more likely that reform will remain a permanent feature of French higher education for many years to come.

Universities: The Ministry of Education lists 91 institutions in its repertory of universities (including "technological" universities, certain "institutes," and other entities) located in France and its overseas territories and départments; this is well over four times as many universities as existed in 1960. Whereas before the 1960s, Paris had 1 university, albeit broken up into various faculties (e.g., Letters, Sciences, Medicine, Law), it now boasts 14, none of which groups all faculties or branches of learning under a single administration. Expansion has been truly exponential.

Even in 2001, a large and fairly old provincial university will usually possess a library much smaller in size than that of a good American liberal arts college whose student body is less than 2,000, although in recent times research undertaken by university faculty has been more strongly encouraged. The Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research), founded after World War II, has had global responsibility for research and publication in all academic disciplines, sponsoring both "laboratories" of its own and the research of individual faculty members at the universities and grandes écoles, and subsidizing "centers of technical competence" involving one or more institutions. However, the movement away from the university as a purely teaching establishment has been, and remains (though less and less) a very slow one.

Each university is headed by a president responsible to the rector of the Academy in which it is located; academies often contain two or more universities. The university president is supported by vice-presidents and academic deans that correspond to the diverse disciplines. Faculty recruitment on the maître de conferences (assistant/associate professor) and professeur levels is lengthy and complex.

Cities in which two or more universities are located will usually witness a grouping of kindred disciplines at each of the institutions. This does little to foment interdisciplinary intellectual contact and cooperation.

Although each discipline introduces variations into its own teaching program, this is done in reference to a nation-wide model that corresponds to three cycles. The student spends his or her first year (cycle) preparing a diploma suitable to his field of major interest, the Diplôme d'études universsitaires générales or DEUG; this is followed by his or her registration in a second cycle, i.e., two or three year licence preparation immediately leading to study at the maîtrise (masters) level. At this point most students leave the university for the job market. Those who stay on, who tend to be the most highly qualified, will undertake the third cycle, which is the preparation of a research project leading to a kind of thesis, or mémoir, called the Diplôme d'études approfondies (DEA). The best of these students will be encouraged to pursue a doctoral degree. Once the doctorate is obtained, the student may sign up for an examination proving his or her capacity to do a high level research project and to supervise individual, as well as teams, of young researchers (l'habilitation à diriger des recherches). At any time after the maîtrise a student may choose to sit for one of the various competitive examinations, such as the Certificat d'aprtitude à l'enseignement secondaire, for a lycée teacher's certificate, the aggregation, or still other examinations. The success rate in these examinations is not encouraging: it averages about 14 percent for the CAPES and aggregation, though CAPES examinations have a higher rate of success than agrégatifs; the rate also depends on the discipline.

Alongside the DEA doctoral program there exists a one-year professional program, involving an obligatory internship within an enterprise or business called the Diplôme d'études supérieures spécialisées (DESS). Upon its completion the student leaves the university for a job.

One and two year university-level programs in technology are offered by the various Instituts universitaires de technologie attached to universities. These institutes offer a two-year diplôme universitaire de technologie (DUT) which leads directly to the job market. Access to the institute is selective. A cycle 1 one-year technological program is also available; it leads to the diplôme d'études universitaires scientifiques et techniques or DEUST, the technological equivalent of the DEUG.

Some lycées also offer very specialized and goal-directed brevets de technicien supérieur (BTS); some 85 fields are covered. About 220,000 students are enrolled in these lycée based programs.

The following ministerial list of average diploma awards (rounded off) over the past five years will provide an idea of the attrition rate among students at the various steps of their university careers: DEUG or the terminal DEUST - 132,000; licence - 133,500; maîtrise - 86,000; DESS - 24,500; DEA- 24,250; and doctorate - 10,000. These figures are to be compared to the total enrollment of students in the French university system: 1 million out of a total of some 2 million post-baccalauréat students altogether. The dropout rate appears to be quite high.

Tuition and fees are set each year by the Ministry of Education; these are very low by North American standards. Financial aid in the form of scholarships is made available on the basis of family need at all levels of university study. Scholarly criteria are used for third-cycle university work. Students are eligible for subsidized housing, provided there is dormitory space, and for inexpensive student restaurant meals.

Entrance to the university is non-selective. The only requirement is the baccalauréat or its equivalent, except in the case of medicine and certain other health-related fields. Students registered in these fields are also subject to individual review at the close of their first year of study.

State-sponsored post-baccalauréat schooling outside of the universities may be subdivided into three main types: public engineering schools, the grandes écoles, and health service/social work-related institutions. In addition, one must also count the system of lycée-based preparatory classes, which are two-year programs designed to prepare students for the grandes écoles and engineering school competitive entrance examinations.

Whereas the great majority of the grandes écoles are administered by the Ministry of National Education, several depend on other ministries or administrations. Thus, the very prestigious École Nationale d'Administration, founded in 1945 in order to prepare upper-level civil servants.

Foreign Students: The Ministry of National Education and many cooperating universities and other institutions of higher learning (including certain grandes écoles) have established a variety of programs aimed at foreign students. The majority of these involve the French language (beginning, intermediate, and advanced) and diverse subjects (literature, art, and history) grouped together as "culture." Certificates and diplomas are awarded appropriately. There has been, and continues to be, considerable demand for these programs. A fair number of summer programs of the above type are also offered, some in collaboration with American colleges and universities, as are year or semester long collaborative programs that involve a variety of French institutions.

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