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A New Higher Education Admissions Service in France - Three Questions to Edouard Husson

Analyses - 9 March 2018

By Institut Montaigne

Admission Post Bac is dead, long live Parcoursup! The new French higher education admissions platform, launched on 22 January and open until 13 March, is now expected to demonstrate both its efficiency and added value. Can we spell the end of the old world and its various failures, missed assignments and multiple deceptions yet? Not so sure. Edouard Husson, Vice President of Paris Sciences & Lettres University and co-President of Institut Montaigne’s task force on higher education, answers our questions on the matter.

Will Parcoursup be able to provide a better match between educational provisions and demands, thanks to the definition of academic prerequisites by universities, and their assessment of candidates’ records and transcripts?

No doubt Admissions Postbac, the former higher education admissions service, was flawed in many ways. Mainly because this initially well-conceived platform was too often fiddled with over the years. Yet, Admissions Postbac’s task was rather easy: matching students with higher education programs, most often without any selection. There were of course classes préparatoires - a two or three-year undergraduate program preparing to a nation-wide competitive examination for the entry into top French schools - , as well as a few bachelor degrees, which, as time went by, became increasingly competitive. These already encouraged interactions between high schools, future undergraduates, and the higher education programs involved.

Parcoursup’s goal is much broader: the orientation and admissions process will now be the concern of every high school student. Both high schools and universities will have to review much more student records. The risk this implies is easy to spot: any new platform could experience a technical glitch; the media could use the slightest failure to highlight the limits of Macron’s method; a social media uproar could ensue. For now, significant apprehensions mixed with a real awareness of the stakes involved are palpable in discussions online and on social media. We are here talking about a whole generation’s higher education. 
In my view, danger zones are not always where they are said to be: I believe high schools have the means to help their seniors. Social media interactions show that everyone can get involved (students, schools, parents), but we will ask more of organizations, the day-to-day commitment to this issue of which is often underestimated. Moreover, universities are not sufficiently organized yet, aside from some exceptions, to carry out these new tasks, which include assessing student records and later, tutoring. Finally, the non-neglectable risk of a widening social divide will have to be anticipated, given the system’s new complexities. 

Is this new guidance process, based on the individualized support of students, fairer? Is the debate on the implementation of a selection process justified?

It is at last the end of the hypocrisy that has characterized the undergraduate system for so long: that of selective elitist programs (e.g. classes préparatoires) on the one side and an unavowed selection in more “open” universities, fueled by students’ failure, on the other. It took us 30 years, i.e. an entire generation, to recover from the failure of the Devaquet bill (1886), which aimed to introduce a selection process when universities couldn’t welcome more students. We should remember that 10 years ago, in order to pass the Urban Renovation Law, Nicolas Sarkozy had to leave aside the whole undergraduate admissions issue. Let us appreciate the fact that opinions have since then matured and that a determined government has passed a short bill providing a clear framework for action. Everything will now depend on the way it is implemented. Above all, we should already anticipate the consequences of such a transformation. 
Parcoursup’s complexity might act as a deterrent on students who are poorly integrated in their educational institutions or whose families are not familiar with this type of procedure. The second part of the undergraduate system’s reform focuses on the multiplication and consolidation of “Cordées de la réussite” systems - a partnership between schools and good higher education institutions intended to support underprivileged high schools students. Of course, all this will have a cost, and we should not bury our heads in the sand. An optimistic interpretation of current events would infer that more solidarity between high schools and more links between secondary and higher education are to be expected. However, in this case, we should give ourselves the means to substantially increase the mechanisms combating students and families’ self-censorship. On the contrary, a pessimistic approach would underline the escalating “sectorisation” of higher education that Parcoursup will reinforce. It is the most important warning there is to express: one can understand that, at first, realistic expectations will require the system to be anchored at a territorial level. However, the assets of higher education stem from mobility, so we should be careful not to kill geographic and social mobility with our good intentions.

Is the commission ultimately instaured for students who haven’t been allocated to a higher education institution able to insure a place for each student? What will the rector’s role in this commission be? 

There is no alternative for the system but to function properly and prove its efficiency, in comparison to Admission Postbac. Commissions will be closely monitored, their criteria for repartition scrutinized. This is where the rector of the Academy will play an essential role. Rectors are used to manage difficulties in allocation each beginning of the academic year. Their expertise and authority as representatives of the State will be welcome.  


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