Monday, November 18, 2013

A Word on the French University

Lundi, 18 novembre.

This morning, I woke up to an email from my art history professor. We probably weren't going to be having class, the email (which was sent just to me) explained, because she was sick: if she didn't show up at 8:15, I should tell the other students that class had been cancelled. She also gave me her phone number and told me not to hesitate to text and ask about the status of class. So I did. She responded, telling me class had been cancelled. Except she didn't respond until three hours later -- after I had already walked to campus in the rain, waited outside for half an hour, and walked back home. In the meantime, I had learned that my other integrated course, my regional medieval history TD, had been cancelled for the day by the professor. But of course, I hadn't received the email.

Now that I'm sitting in my nice cozy bed and listening to the rain outside my window (as opposed to on my umbrella), I'm inspired to say a few words about the French university system. Fair warning: they're not going to be particularly charitable ones.

Ever since the very first week of school, when I waited for a 90 minutes for a professor who never showed and sat in on my first lecture class, I've had a relatively negative opinion of the student body at Université de Montpellier III. Students don't have a whole lot of initiative: if the professor doesn't seem to be showing up, they just stand outside the door and wait. And wait. And wait. Inside the classroom, they just don't really seem to care. Sure, they take notes in lecture -- for the most part. But they don't respond to professors' questions and rarely ask any of their own. Even in the few classes that require participation, nobody volunteers. I don't really get it. They're getting a college education, practically for free. (Total cost of attending UPV? Maybe a couple hundred Euros a year. That's right: a couple HUNDRED.) And yet, they always seem to have something to complain about.

Which brings me to my next point of discussion ... the grèves.

As the droit de manifester is apparently the primary right in the French Constitution, it's not particularly surprising that there have been small protests all semester. It hasn't been too extreme: just groups of students passing out flyers and marching around with megaphones. There were even some half-hearted signs posted on the buildings, like this one that I pass every day...

Sorry, French students. I would take you seriously but your appropriation and subsequent conjugation of the verb "stop" is too ridiculous to accept. Also, do you really want to compare your movement to those in SPAIN and GREECE? Like ... please. Maybe try picking a country whose economy isn't completely in the toilet.

But things started to get serious a few weeks ago. With the university in some serious financial trouble, the administration announced that they would have to make some cutbacks -- including, as I understand it, closing a satellite campus in a nearby town and requiring applications for admission to the overcrowded university. Applications?! For admission?! To a university?! The idea seems pretty obvious. In America, students spend years building up an academic resume and work for countless hours to find the right college and craft the perfect admission essays.

In France ... not so much.

Needless to say ... I did not take this picture. I'm staying far away from the protests!
Although some schools require applications for admissions, the average university is much less selective. As long as students have taken and passed the bac (a standardized exam taken at the end of high school), they can enroll in university courses. This system has its positives: namely, everyone who passes high school gets to go to college. And traditionally, that's not easy to do -- the bac is a notoriously difficult exam. At least, it was. According to my French civilization professor, the exam's passing rate is now over 85% nationally. And that's not because the students suddenly got smarter; rather, it's a conscious effort by a government trying to reduce unemployment among young adults by encouraging them to stay in school.

Unfortunately, they DON'T stay in school. They come to university, spend a year taking classes, and then quit. For some, university is too hard. (Public universities like UPV aren't bringing in the sharpest knives in the drawer. I'm sure there are some smart cookies. Just not a whole ton.) For others, it's a poor choice of major: since students are not even required to study the subjects in which they took their high school exams, a student could pass a bac in science and then enroll at Paul-Valéry to major in literature! As a result, apparently around two-thirds of students at Paul-Valery drop out after their first year of college. TWO THIRDS. That's over SIXTY percent. Do you know what percentage of students drop out of William and Mary after their first year? FIVE.

So the idea of requiring applications to go to Paul-Valéry? Well, you might as well tell the French population that the country has run out of baguettes.

The actual timeline of events is a little blurred in my head and I'm afraid that I don't care enough to get it all straightened out. But basically, ever since returning from fall break, the students have spent the past few weeks on strike. Some days, they go to class. Some days, they have giant assembly meetings to air their grievances and vote about what to do next. And some days, they do this:

That's right. In what they call un blocage total de la fac, they blockade the entrances to academic buildings, the mindset being to physically prevent professors and students from having class. Some of the blockades are a litttle on the pathetic side -- a few chairs stacked on top of a desk is hardly a concrete barrier -- but they've been getting a little more creative as of late.

This is what I arrived to last Thursday morning, when I came to campus for my German class:

Looks like nobody's going to German class today... (Not even a surprise, to be honest: I've been to exactly THREE German classes all semester. The rest have been cancelled, thanks to three weeks of teacher absence and two weeks of blockaded doors. Only in France...)

At first, it was exciting. The very first blockade happened right after we came back from fall break: students blocked the doors to my history class and our RI course was forced to relocate to the campus of Université de Montpellier II (where the math and science kids are too smart to strike). That day, the students paraded around waving a giant red flag and it was pretty much a real-life version of Les Misérables. We received "IMPORTANT" emails from university faculty, including our program coordinators -- who enthusiastically assured us that these sorts of demonstrations were exceedingly rare. (However, the last time one occured, it lasted three months. Students had to take their final exams at home and send them in their professors.)

Unfortunately, the reality of the grève has since sunk in and it's all become a lot less exciting. There's nothing fun about walking to campus, only to find out your classroom is blocked and your professor is gone, or having to make up missed classes on the weekends. Additionally, because the study abroad program directors are never sure when the classrooms on campus will be blocked, we're currently meeting for our RI classes at another building, about a 15 minute walk from the main campus. I didn't think anything could be less glamorous than UPV, but this little compound has proved me wrong.

The rooms don't have chalkboards or projectors, which is proving a little difficult in classes that require a lot of writing on the board and giving exposés, but at least they're not blocked by furniture! (Well, at least not yet.) Also the bathroom is mega sketch: I've been in once and it was one time too many.

Will the grèves continue? Will the French students ever be satisfied? Stay tuned to hear more.


  1. Naturellement, je suis navree de lire cele mais pas du tout surprise...Esperons que ce n'est pas le cas partout. Un bon point pour les etudiants en sciences :-)

  2. Certainly not the norm in the universities I know. I appreciate your ability to maintain your composure and deal with whatever comes your way. Every experience is a learning one. You are wise beyond your years; hang tough and I am truly sure your education in France far supersedes any gained in these classrooms. Stay strong, proud and independent. Love you so much, P & B