Once you have your bac “en poche” (literally, in your pocket), you have access to university, and as long as there is space, you can, in theory, sign up for any of the courses available.
www.admission-postbac.fr is the address through which centralised applications are made. The last date for online applications is March 20, with propositions being made to students in the month of June. This is better than in the old days when students often camped overnight to be sure of a place at the rentrée (the start of the school year).
The major problem is that 40% of French university students do not actually obtain a degree, many dropping out in year one. Under the new system, in which students are entitled to an interview with university staff to make sure their choice coincides with abilities, universities are hoping to reduce that failure rate, though often the problem is financial too.
The thinking behind the non-selective entry is fine: being part of the state education system, it would be unethical to select. Also, students should be given a chance to prove themselves, as opposed to having to depend on a head’s report, as in the Anglo-Saxon system.
This is not the case in France. The university does not have access to your school reports. But, and it’s a big but, the class numbers are very high, and students often ill-prepared for the big change. Since the French secondary system puts emphasis less on autonomy than on acquiring levels of knowledge and skills (one could argue that the UK system puts more emphasis on autonomy and not enough on knowledge and skills, but somehow at university you need all of this) many first year students are in deep water by the end of term one. Basic things like note-taking, organisation of personal work and researching in a library are skills which many lack.
Unlike in the UK, students rarely leave their educational district to study. Life on the campus tends to come to a halt at weekends, and students all go home to get their washing done by Mum and take enough food back for the week… this means less interactivity between students too, less time to work in libraries, discontinuity in the learning process…
This is why more and more students are opting for professional post-bac courses with smaller classes and more individual attention and good prospects of a job at the end of the tunnel. For which, see my next article.
One last point: financing a child at university can be a headache, not for the fees, which in a state university (there are also private ones) are in the 150 euro range. The problem is accommodation. There is not enough onsite student accommodation for everyone, so many parents rent studio flats, which can be a very expensive option in some cities.
Make sure you visit student lodging with your child before they settle in. My DIY brother-in-law spent several days redoing the electricity in my niece’s room in a university I shall not name just outside Paris.
•With thanks to Jacqueline Karp