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Reforms will give students fairer deal

FRANCE. Education minister's proposals aim to reduce drop-out rate, writes Jane Marshall. Undergraduates will have more flexibility when choosing their subject for a first degree, and all students will enjoy a "more just" benefits system, under reforms unveiled by the education minister Francois Bayrou.

Mr Bayrou's proposals, which were welcomed by universities and students, are the culmination of nearly 18 months' consultation with university presidents, teacher and student unions and associations, during which he chaired more than 100 hours of meetings.

The exercise stemmed from an election promise by President Chirac for university reforms, including a students' charter, and became more urgent when student strikes and protests broke out at the end of 1995 in response to university overcrowding and underfunding. Mr Bayrou then introduced emergency measures to help the poorest universities.

A principal aim of the new measures is to cut the high early drop-out rate of students studying for the Diplome D'Etudes Universitaires Generales (DEUG), the initial two-year university course.

The academic year will be divided into two semesters instead of three terms, and the first semester of year one will become an "orientation" period, after which students will have a chance to change from their first choice of subject to another.

Broadly related subjects will be grouped into eight fields: law, economy, management and administration; humanities and languages; human and social sciences; science; arts; sporting and leisure studies; organisational science and techniques; engineering sciences.

In each group, the first semester will cover the chosen subject and will also touch on other subjects in the same group. Students will be able to switch courses if they find one that suits them better.

Instead of the complex student benefits system - criticised by Mr Bayrou as "unjust" because it benefits rich and poor students while neglecting middle-income students - a single benefit will be progressively introduced for all degree levels, starting for university entrants at the start of the next academic year.

It will be calculated on student or family income, distance from home to university, housing costs and progress of studies. The allowance will not be withdrawn if the student has to repeat a year, as at present.

The thorny question of workplace training is also included and is envisaged for all post-DEUG students taking a licence (equivalent to a bachelor's degree) or a matrise (master's).

After consultations with student representatives, the employers' organisation the Conseil National du Patronat Francais has withdrawn its original controversial stages diplomants plan, a work experience scheme that was rejected by students as too exploitative (TES, January 24).

Its successor, renamed the "first professional experience", was discussed at a youth employment summit last month, chaired by prime minister Alain Juppe and attended by 13 ministers and more than 60 employer, union and student representatives.

Due to start next academic year, this voluntary scheme will be incorporated into the university programme. It will last for at least four and a half months and will take place under the supervision of the university and the company. Participants will be paid 1,800 francs (Pounds 194) a month.

Other initiatives announced by Mr Bayrou include: * a plan, known as Universite 2000 plus, to provide offices for university teachers and study rooms for students, and to develop libraries and university residences * extension of the tutelage system under which established students are paid to help newcomers * time spent in university activities, such as running the sports club, to count towards evaluation of studies * encouragement of research links between universities and large institutions * recognition for lecturers who want to further their careers by giving priority to teaching, rather than by publishing academic treatises.

Thanks to his consultation, Mr Bayrou's proposals have received general assent in the academic world - the first time for many years that a minister of the Right has failed to provoke anger, protest, dissent or riots while attempting university reform.

Pouria Amirshahi, president of the pro-Socialist student union (Union Nationale des Etudiants de France - Independante et Democratique), claimed in an interview in Le Monde that for the first time, the students had "imposed a reform".

Some unions, however, have expressed anxiety at the lack of budgetary details and precise undertakings.

Seven out of eight undergraduates obtain a qualification equivalent to at least two years' higher education, and six out of 10 students who enrol at university stay on to take a second degree, according to a new report.

But only just over a quarter complete their DEUG in the requisite two years, and there are wide disparities between the results of different universities.

The study, from the Department of Evaluation and Futurology of the Ministry of Education, compares for the first time the success rates of students for every university in France, presenting information relating to between 1989-90 and 1995-96.

To avoid the controversial creation of a "league table" of universities, the report provides simulated, as well as actual, results to compensate for the different types of student intake at each establishment.

It shows that access to post-DEUG studies, a licence or a matrise, is largely determined by the type of baccalaureat (the end of lycee exam) taken by the student, and the age at which he or she sits it. A student who has taken a "low-value" technological baccalaureat at the age of 20, having had to repeat two years during his or her schooling, has seven times less chance of taking a higher degree than an 18-year-old with a "high-value" science baccalaureat.

Of the 40 per cent of students who do not stay on at university after the DEUG, 20 per cent take further studies elsewhere (for example, in a technology institute, in medicine or at an architectural college), 10 per cent leave after a year, and the rest drop out completely without any qualification. The average time taken to complete the two-year DEUG is 2.7 years, though some students take up to five years, the result varying according to the type of course and the university.

De l'Entree a l'Universite au deuxi me Cycle: Taux d'Acc s Reel et Simule, Dossiers de L'Education No. 78, Direction de l'Evaluation et de la Prospective (DEP), 58 boulevard du Lycee, 92170 Vanves, price 95 francs (Pounds 10. 25).

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