This is the final column I’ll write for SCAN from France, as my Year Abroad is sadly drawing to an end.
This year has quite simply been the best of my life, however cheesy or corny that sounds. The experiences I have been able to have, people I have been lucky enough to meet and places I have visited have changed me and my outlook on life. France was once something I feared; this time last year it was the one taboo topic which was under no circumstances to be discussed (worse that the thought of exams), yet now there’s been a 180 turn and that has now been replaced with the thought of leaving.
That said, there are obviously things that I will not miss. The only thing that has made the year a “struggle” has been the educational system and university here. I can safely, definitely, categorically and undisputedly say that I shall not miss it. Never again shall I complain about the administrative aspect of life at Lancaster University, the way lecturers lecture, or the support provided to students if it is needed or wanted, even if these things often leave us wanting.
Here, university life could not be more far removed to that which I have experienced for two years at Lancaster. Students tend to go to the local university and live at home if they live in the city, or chose the city nearest to their village should they live more rurally. That is the norm and the minority move to pastures new. At Lancaster, I am not alone in having chosen a university some 3 hour drive away from home, I am part of the majority. And with regards to entering “la fac,” it couldn’t really be more simple, or cheap, for a potential student. So long as you pass your “bac” (equivalent to A levels) and pay the equivalent of no more than £300, you have the right to enrol at a university, any university, to study whatever you want to. It is virtually unheard of not to be accepted (Grands Ecoles, which are the equivalent to red bricks, excluded). This means that the spread is enormous in terms of levels; there is no competition to enter and, as a result, no motivation to stay there. Its no wonder then, that the system here is renowned internationally for not being that good.
Given that almost anyone can join, people don’t appreciate it. Whilst studying here I have been able to study almost anything I like and at any level: history, business, polish, korean, communications, law – you name it, it was an option regardless of previous experience.
Unsure of both my level of French, and the standard of lectures here, I opted for a few first year modules in the first semester. Rarely at Lancaster do you see a lecture theatre completely filled; this was the first difference I noticed. Half of the students in that amphi were not there to learn seriously, it was more a case of something to pass the time until they realised what it was they actually want to do.
Over the following months, up until my last lecture three or four weeks ago, this didn’t change. The number of students dropped each week (as is often the case in Lancaster) yet the disturbance in lectures continued. I’m aware that here I may sound like one of those students, but I am really not. I was one of the disruptive kids at school, but even I have my limits.
After an exam last week, a friend and I ended up having a conversation about this with a lecturer. He was clearly at his wits end. He pointed out frankly that the lack of competition to enter reduces the want to be there – they don’t value the opportunity. “Students have the right to be there, but don’t necessarily want to be which means what teachers teach has to cater to a lower standard.” He later said he finds this demoralising for the students who are there to learn, and means that when they continue through their degree they get a sharp reality check with an enormous step in terms of what is required and expected of them as students.
Because it is such an uncompetitive system the universities have to make it competitive when it comes to marking. They only pass a certain percentage of students, regardless of the marks. So even if you get 12 or 13 out of 20 (quite a good score by French standards, and over the pass benchmark of 10) if the majority your peers have got 15 or 16 you could be subject to “failing” because the university needs to drop so many students. It makes you wonder how much the system would benefit by changing to being more competitive based on intelligence, like ours.
Thats not to say that ours is without its flaws. The reaction of anyone I have spoken to out here, whether they are French or not, regarding the new fees is one of disbelief. Partly because for them, it is such a unconceivable thing to have to pay anything over £300 per year, and partly because they cannot fathom how anyone will pay that back, ever.
Low fees and the widest birth of course choice imaginable or not, I’m looking forward to a quiet lecture with an approachable lecturer who uses both PowerPoint and Moodle (and no, I never thought I would say that). I’ll see you in October, Foxy George Lecture Theater 1.