The so-called French university crisis: facts and self-fulfilling ideology


Not a week goes by in France without some newspaper headline about the university crisis, but it is also time to talk numbers concerning this matter. Reviewing an empirical study by two French sociologists, we find that the crisis is not the one we are told.

There is a persistent rumour that public universities are in crisis, and this notion is also prevalent in France. Over the last decade, the world of public higher education and research has been subject to many reforms, often ill-received. While application of the Bologna Process structure is now accepted, the 2007 LRU reform[1] created a wide student protest movement, as well as many negative reactions from teachers and researchers. Transferring to universities the independent management of its financial, human resources and real estate aspects, one of the aims of the Bologna Process was to improve performance through a closer connection with business. Its failure is now acknowledged by the French government according to a French Senate report (April 2013), even if the reasons for this failure are still being discussed. Generally speaking, specialists of the field recognise that this reform transferred some important managing tasks to universities without passing on the necessary skills and financial means.

This is so much the case that university deans publicly address the minister and government to review their policies at the beginning of each academic year[2]. And that’s not all. Other reforms deeply transformed the legal scene and complicated the situation: starting in 2006, universities were clustered into “PRES” [3], creating administrative imbroglios that have still not been cleared up, while the academic community is still debating the relevance of the forms taken by the exceptional funding for excellence in Higher Education and Research[4]. In an attempt to level the field, the government coordinated a public debate with the Higher Education and Research community, experts, politicians and civil society groups in 2012[5]. This attempt to reach a new consensus failed however, especially because the Higher Education and Research community felt that the discussion was mostly an illusion.

Thus the current French context is very tense, and signs of discontent frequently make the news[6]. In response to teachers, researchers and student lobbies and unions, newspapers and specialists regularly list the numerous internal flaws that could sink these public institutions, including academically weak students due to an improper selection process, a failure to attract students, shortcomings of supervision and funding and low expectations for employment because of a lack of compatibility. In other words, it is frequently asserted that the problem lies within the very structure and essence of the university in a Higher Education system characterised by the duality between open public universities, with very low fees on one hand, and expensive private schools and the highly selective public Grandes Ecoles (like the Ecole Normale Supérieure or the Ecole Polytechnique with their specific preparatory programs, the classes préparatoires) on the other.

Book cover: Romuald Bodin and Sophie Orange, L’université n’est pas en crise, Paris, Editions du Croquant, 2013.

Book cover: Romuald Bodin and Sophie Orange, L’université n’est pas en crise, Paris, Editions du Croquant, 2013.

However, this stereotype may not be so representative of reality, as a recent publication tends to show. Written by two French sociologists, L’université n’est pas en crise[7] argues that this notion does not rely on facts. They point out that the idea of the university crisis is neither new nor correct. At least in France, it is an old tune that one could already hear back in the late 1940s, and again in the 1970s, starting in 1968[8]. For instance, French people spoke about the crisis in the same way regardless of whether the number of students grew or shrank. With their scientific study, Bodin and Orange denounce some major fallacies that nevertheless dominate public discourse.

1. The university is not a default choice for those who failed to enter a selective programme

It is commonly heard that the university is where people end up when they don’t know what they want or have nowhere else to go. There are different stereotypes behind this notion that Bodin and Orange call into question. Firstly, it reminds us of the supposition that, whereas the most capable students go to classes préparatoires and Grandes Ecoles, the university has to accept the weakest ones. According to this idea, students with technical and vocational high school diplomas, as opposed to general diplomas, are categorised as having access to public universities. Bodin and Orange proves that facts deny that idea, and are founded only on a logical presupposition. One is told that while selective programmes do choose their students, the students also choose to join. By symmetry, non-selective programmes would not choose their students, as their students would not choose specifically to attend university. Yet the reality is different: half the students with general diplomas attend universities and still make up the largest share of its student body. A complete sociological study reveals that, contrary to French public preconceptions, selective programmes absorb not only the best students, but also the weakest, which are trained as qualified technicians or in the field of social work. Demonstrating that the French Higher Education scene is not divided between elitist schools and weak universities, Bodin and Orange assert that the distinction between regular and elite is more complex, depending on subject matter more than on the type of selection, and that universities are penetrated by this very distinction.

Secondly, there are empirical studies showing that the university is actually chosen by students. There is a centralised post-high school diploma candidacy system (APB) where students list their wishes for their Higher Education. Two-thirds of them include the university in their wishes, and one-third puts it in first place. Some of the most desired training programmes are taught at universities, such as medicine, pharmacy and law. This is linked to the high percentage of students entering the university with a professional career in mind. Contrary to public prejudice, 88% of French high school graduates enter the university with plans for a professional career, according to a 2011 study by the Higher Education Ministry. Considering another study, one could even be surprised to learn that there were more students with career plans at the university than in vocational schools, including the classes préparatoires. It appears that the default choice does not primarily concern universities, but business schools.

2. The university does not only prepare for unemployment 

According to the crisis idea, there are no real job prospects for university graduates because their programmes do not meet the current criteria of the job market. To the contrary, vocational schools (e.g., engineering or business schools) provide reliable access to employment. Bodin and Orange remind those that would have forgotten that it is still true that graduates are better protected from unemployment, and that the higher the degree, the better the protection. One significant example would be the struggle against gender discrimination: the more women graduate, the more their situation tends to catch up. But while being a graduate is still an effective weapon against unemployment, they do not discuss whether university degrees offer the same protection as vocational schools. The argument remains unsatisfying because Bodin and Orange do not clarify this point. In contravention to their own stated methodology, they do not provide an empirical study on this important matter. In some ways, one could claim that they answer the issue indirectly through the next point: the most crucial (and commonly ignored) role of the university is perhaps not to provide direct access to employment, but to spread flexibility throughout the French Higher Education system.

3. The high dropout rate does not prove the existence of a university crisis

In April 2013, a French ministerial study revealed alarming numbers: 3 students out of 10 leave the University before finishing their Bachelor’s degree and only 1 out of 3 receive their Bachelor’s degree within the regular period (three years)[9]. According to the crisis discourse, this is a clear sign of the dysfunction of universities, which are unable to retain students or to help them to cope with their difficulties. But we can also draw a double refutation of this “fact” from Bodin and Orange’s work. On one hand, if we dig into factual data, we can find that these numbers are not increasing: dropping out is an old phenomenon that has remained constant as far back as our sociologists could check (the 1960s), with a rate of around 25 to 30%. Moreover, the French situation on this point is better than most OECD countries – only Belgium, Denmark and Japan have lower dropout rates. On the other hand, a more complete analysis shows that these numbers are close to those in other sectors of Higher Education. Therefore, dropping out certainly does occur in French universities, but it is not new, on the rise or limited to the university.

In addition, Bodin and Orange provide a powerful critique of the very idea of dropping out, which is often understood as failure or deviance, frequently attributed to unfortunate personal or financial circumstances or psychological difficulties. This only reveals a poor understanding of the reality and complexity of Higher Education: most of the time, dropping out is not about abandoning Higher Education, but a changing within it. The university exists not only to issue degrees, but also to enable mobility within the Higher Education system. This is undoubtedly the most interesting part of Bodin and Orange’s work, in which they try to define the function of the university within the Higher Education system. They take aim at the traditional way of defining an academic career as straight and “tubular” because it tries to impose the school model on the university, which would be a mechanistic vision of schooling with a managerial dream of smooth human flow. But human reality is different, and people need crossroads or buffer zones allowing for trying things out and changing. That is what the university allows when it plays its role of regulating graduate flow, being not only a professional degree provider, but also a preparatory school for some of its Bachelor’s programmes or a specialisation school when it welcomes students with Master’s degrees or PhDs. From this viewpoint, dropping out is not an alarming sign of malfunction, but an indication that the university is playing its normal role. Still, Bodin and Orange are aware that this interpretation of how the university works need not hide its real shortcomings. Dropping out is not only a regular feature, but also the expression of the dominant socio-cultural power that it embodies. Like Bourdieu and Passeron in their famous Reproduction in Education, Bodin and Orange state that school in general, and Higher Education in particular, acts as a tool of domination by the upper social classes to orientate students from working-class backgrounds towards more “appropriate” forms of training. In this sense, they answer to those who pray for selection in universities that there already is an implicit and socially biased selection already takes place, embodied by the reorientation process. it already applies an implicit and socially biased one. This is illustrated by the suspicion sometimes cast on new-comers when they are treated like foreigners illegally crossing the border, for instance, accused of cynically taking advantage of social aid and being “false” students. But this objection does not nullify the definition of the university as a provider of flexibility; it implies that we need to improve the way it works for it to assume its proper task.


From this empirical analysis of whether the notion of a crisis is accurate, we can see how common attacks on the university actually blind us from the real threat. Bodin and Orange underline that what is presented as a judgement of facts is in reality nothing but an ideological discourse that tries to condemn the university by assigning it a role that it doesn’t truly have. By nature, the university is not a school, but an “intermediate space, diversified and organised into a hierarchy, for circulation, regulation, adjustment and testing. […] Many educational itineraries wouldn’t be possible withoutit.”[10] One of the strengths of Bodin and Orange’s analysis is its stress on the fact that this crisis discourse is self-fulfilling. It creates a sense of crisis so effective that even some internal stakeholders are using these bleak and disqualifying representations of the university. The reality is that this discourse is based on presuppositions coming from a value judgement between selective elitist programmes and open public universities. So it calls for reforms: more selection, more professionalisation, more cost-effectiveness and simpler management of human flows. In other terms, the crisis discourse calls for making universities more like vocational schools. And this is where the true crisis lies, according to our authors: when the very nature of the university, which allows mobility through the entire system, comes under attack. That is why, in the end, they do not deny that French universities currently face many difficulties, and that students, professors and administrative staff face real problems. (And why they expect them to grow, if we are to listen to those proclaiming a crisis). Contrary to public rumour, the French university is not slowly dying from the inside. It is mostly endangered by its own self-deprecation. Nevertheless, avoiding this crisis would imply having a clear mind about the precise role and aims of universities in France.

Featured photo credit: moacirpdsp via photopin cc

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[1] The “Law on liberties and Responsibilities of Universities”, also called the Law on the autonomy of universities or “Loi Pécresse”. For a better understanding of this French glossary, see our posts.

[2] For instance, see the draft motion against the French budget for universities that 17 deans wrote in October 2013: We quote and translate: “We were not elected to reduce the number of positions or to decrease the funds earmarked for training, research, documentation or student life.”

[3] “Cluster of Research and Higher Education”.

[4] Equipex (Equipment of Excellence), Labex (Labs of Excellence) and Idex (Initiative of Excellence). In 2011-12, the idea was to create a limited number of top-notch centres in France, at an international level, with a total funding of 11 billion euros. A second wave has been announced by the current government.

[5] The “Assizes of Research”:

[6] Several public discussions have arisen over the last few months on topics as different as financial endowments, threats to close a university annex, student grants, the place of English in French universities and the closure of the French Evaluation Agency for Research and Higher Education (AERES).

[7] Romuald Bodin and Sophie Orange, L’université n’est pas en crise, Paris, Editions du Croquant, 2013.

[8] From the end of the 1940s until today, the situation of the university seems to arouse constant discussion. But if the university has always been in crisis, perhaps that means it never really has been”. Bodin and Orange, Op. cit., p. 10.


[10] Bodin and Orange, Op. cit., p. 190.