Why France's Napoleonic Exam System Is Broken

(Bloomberg View) -- France’s school-leaving exam, known as "Le Bac" (short for baccalaureat) is an institution badly in need of a shake-up but also deeply resistant to change. As such, it's an excellent test of the reformist mettle of French President Emmanuel Macron, whose education minister recently announced a shake-up of the system.  On Tuesday, a parliamentary committee began its internal examination of the reform.

The bac was created by Napoleon in 1808 as an entrance exam for public universities, and it still gives a blanket legal right to graduates to attend the university of their choice. For a long time, this made sense: In 1950, 5 percent of high school finishers received the bac; in 1960 it was 10 percent. But with the drive to open higher education to the masses, and the egalitarian spirit that followed the May 1968 student protests and the first Socialist government in the 1980s, the bac took on new significance. In the late 1980s, the government set a goal of 80 percent bac holders per cohort, which was promptly achieved by lowering bac standards. In 2017, 87.9 percent of takers received the bac.

This has turned the bac from a selective entrance examination into a broad national rite of passage; it is now viewed as an entitlement. The end result has been havoc in French public universities. After the bac, around 40 percent of students who pursue higher education head into selective programs, public or private. The remaining 60 percent head into non-selective programs at public universities, often to study subjects for which they are poorly qualified.

As a result, public universities are a disaster. Because tuition is free, they do not have the money or resources to handle the massive influx. Undergraduate students sit on the floor in packed auditoriums, decrepit libraries are permanently overcrowded, student services are non-existent. They are looked down upon by employers, because the implication of a university degree is that the holder couldn’t get onto a selective track.

This setup is a classic example of the French disease: a profoundly hierarchical system that pretends to be egalitarian. Though many do have high quality professors, with few resources, universities cannot provide scholarships or help to underprivileged students. So the universities practice selectivity by attrition: less than half of students manage to graduate from the three-year undergraduate program in five years and there is widespread agreement that this is because most of those who fail were unqualified to begin with and should have been steered towards vocational programs where they might have thrived.

The system is a disaster for everyone: Good students who choose programs that are only available through universities, such as law, medicine or the humanities, have to deal with third-world conditions, unqualified students waste years when they might have done well in a vocational program and joined the labor force early, and universities are financially bled dry by the masses of future dropouts, who are derisively called “university tourists.” The system is most cruel to those middling students who might have succeeded if they got the kind of support that the system is perversely designed to withhold to force them to drop out.

Allowing public universities to pick and choose students has long been a wish-list item on the French right, but it is a political third-rail. Every suggestion of change triggered mass student protests, and strikes in universities, where the vast majority of the faculty leans left, and believes in a universal entitlement for world-class higher education. Meanwhile, well-off parents regard the bac as a safety net for children who cannot get into selective programs; in university the middle class children have an edge over less-privileged students as they can access extra tutoring and other support through their networks. This is why Macron vowed not to introduce selectivity at the undergraduate level; it would have riled his middle-class base.

Instead, his administration is moving forward with technical changes that, while they fall short of a legal right for universities to introduce selectivity, would over time introduce it in practice.  Under the reforms, there would be four final exams, whose topics would be largely chosen by the students, instead of up to 19 currently; on other subjects, the grades rather than final exams would count. This is more akin to the A-level system in the U.K. where students chose several subjects based on what they plan to study at university.

Once universities can give priority only to students who have taken subjects related to the programs they want to study, it is the end of the bac as a blanket right to attend university. Although they are still officially unable to practice selectivity, universities can state that for those programs that are oversubscribed, applicants who do not fulfill certain prerequisites can be put on a waitlist. “Since it is universities that decide which programs are oversubscribed, the end result is that over time they will have the ability to implement selectivity,” says Liliana Moyano, president of FCPE, a large lobby group of student parents, which threatens to oppose the reform if it results in selectivity by stealth.

If it works in the way it’s intended, over time it could usher in a radical shift to how higher education works in France. By necessity, vocational programs would have to expand tremendously to take in those students who currently go into university without the right qualifications. But there are risks in Macron's approach too: Introducing such a big reform through the backdoor, while clever, is not the sort of political move that is healthy in a democracy, particularly in a country like France where anti-elite discontent is at a generational high. It remains to be seen whether the forces that have opposed change to the fabled bac system in the past will accept it now.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a Paris-based writer and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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