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How French Universities Responded to Covid-19

How French Universities Responded to Covid-19
 Francis Vérillaud
Former Special Advisor, Office of the Director General

Special Advisor to Institut Montaigne, Francis Vérillaud did a virtual "Tour de France" of universities to see how they fulfilled their mission during the health crisis we are going through. This tour had four stops: the University of Pau and Pays de l'Adour (UPPA), the University Savoie-Mont Blanc (USMB), the University of Picardy Jules Verne (UPJV) and the University of Bordeaux (UB). Francis Vérillaud analyses how these universities responded to this unprecedented pedagogical context. 

The University of Pau and Pays de l'Adour (UPPA), the University Savoie-Mont Blanc (USMB), the University of Picardy Jules Verne (UPJV) and the University of Bordeaux (UB) immediately complied with the mandatory lockdown measures to fight Covid-19 and avoid a possible saturation of the French hospital system. Teachers, professors, researchers and staff members were on hand by March 13, and sometimes even earlier, to ensure that a large part of the university community could continue to attend their courses virtually. In each of these universities, crisis centers were set up. 

This is what has happened in every French university. The very nature of their mission, to transmit knowledge through written and spoken word, facilitated this transition into a virtual world, as students, teachers, researchers and administrative teams are accustomed to using digital tools.

How universities fulfilled their duties, and went beyond

Pedagogical continuity was ensured without delay. Courses were made available on the RENATER network (National telecommunications network for Technology, Education and Research) and the Microsoft TEAMS system. Most teachers mainly used the ZOOM software, due to its user-friendliness. Students and teachers used their universities’ digital platforms, with a consultation rate of 70 to 95% for their e-learning options. In addition, many existing courses were made available on the FUN platform, which offers MOOCs both at national and international levels.

The great majority of students adapted easily to these new teaching practices. The use of WhatsApp, email, audio and video techniques is now massively widespread in universities. Not only have the courses been virtually delivered, but it has also been possible to maintain teaching through distance via PDF courses, video lectures and online chats.

Students and teachers used their universities’ digital platforms, with a consultation rate of 70 to 95% for their e-learning options.

These platforms helped to maintain the quality of teaching, although at times it had to be downgraded. Most importantly, it should be noted that many teachers who had no experience in teaching over distance eventually adopted these new practices quite easily. The good coordination between courses had most positive effects, leading to better dialogue between the different components of the university. For their part, the technical teams provided highly valuable assistance to teachers and students.

Throughout the crisis, supporting students in distress remained a major concern. The rate of non-participation in courses varied according to diploma levels, disciplines, and programs, with 20 to 30% of students considered "distressed". Among them are the "dropouts", that is the students who stop attending their courses while remaining enrolled each year. The proportion of students dropping out during the course of their studies probably did not change this year, indicating a rather large number of "distressed" students.

There are at least 4 reasons for these cases of distress:

  • students living in rural areas with poor connection
  • students with low financial means, preventing proper and permanent internet connection 
  • students who are physically debilitated due to illness or family responsibilities
  • students who can no longer go to work, which prevents them from supporting their basic needs.

Dropping out is obviously most often the result of social exclusion, and the issue of student distress is now widely revealed by the Covid-19 crisis. Among students in difficulty as a result of the crisis, a significant number of foreign students, who are indeed in a fragile position, are often confined in minimal conditions, in the city or in university residences, far from their families or familiar surroundings. For instance, in Pau, 50% of the students are locked down near the university, in town or university housing. All the others have returned to their families. Many foreign students are housed on campus. The same is true in Amiens, Chambéry and Bordeaux.

Universities and their staff, teachers and non-teachers, have made a considerable effort in reaching out to these distressed students, quickly and individually, in order to understand the reasons for their distancing, and to help them reintegrate into the curricula and programs. These students are offered support as well as technical aid: when necessary, they can be equipped with computers and 4G keys, powerful enough to provide reliable internet connection.

All universities made available their social assistance budgets for helping students in precarious situations.

This effort was made in close collaboration with the representatives of the Centre Régional des Œuvres Universitaires et Sociales (CROUS) (a regional organization providing student bursaries and accomodations), who run an essential part of student life, including the management of student residences. However, as the CROUS lacks sufficient management personnel, the presence of university staff has become essential. After all, who better than teachers can know who attends their classes and who does not! 

The teachers’ intense commitment to support all their students, to the point of reaching and rescuing the "distressed ones" individually, was emphasized by all university presidents. All universities made available their social assistance budgets for helping students in precarious situations.

Difficulties in funding complementary pedagogical activities have raised the issue of internships, apprenticeships or semesters abroad. Most of these activities were disrupted by the health crisis, the lock-down and the weakening economy. However, students were able to attend their courses normally during part of the semester. Without too much difficulty, it was also possible to develop new evaluation strategies and to pursue ongoing projects from home. At an international level, the universities effectively managed to repatriate their students or to assist remotely those who had chosen to stay abroad. Overall, these activities will be difficult to promote and support in the future.

The issue of examinations remains central. At UPPA, as in the other three universities, they decided to set up all possible forms of continuous assessment. This still implies that several examinations must be held online. The universities do not consider this to be a major problem, as the first half of the second semester took place normally. The objective of pedagogical continuity only concerns the second half of this semester. There have been many online discussions and debates around this issue, especially regarding the proposal put forward by the UNEF (the National Union of Students of France) to give every student a passing 10/20 grade. However, the vast majority of professors and students are very much opposed to it, wishing to protect the value of their degrees at all costs.

Daunting challenges for research activities

Confinement might be beneficial for humanities and social sciences, if it doesn’t last for too long. But it has more urgent impacts on laboratory activities, especially life sciences and the daily monitoring of experiments.

On the one hand, we are already witnessing an increase in the number of publications. Many researchers are writing and publishing research that they had formerly started, and which they would have otherwise let mature slowly. In addition to this, the Covid-19 crisis can lead to new lines of research regarding major societal issues that could be particularly fertile. Moreover, even though the labs are closed, ongoing experiments are still, when possible, monitored and completed.

However, and more critically, the University of Bordeaux indicates that the consequences on research are substantial. This is particularly true for life sciences, due to the cancellation of ongoing experiments and to the shifting of several works and resources towards the fight against Covid-19. The university says that it is now more than 6 months behind schedule in its ordinary research activities.

All universities stress the fact that their scientific community has made the fight against Covid-19 their priority. All laboratories are trying to support nearby hospitals. From this point of view, it must be noted that university communities have played an important, if not central, role in the way the country has dealt with the Covid-19 crisis. Universities are major agents in terms of territorial decentralization, and their presidents are asking that this be taken into account when the time comes to take stock of the situation.

How these institutions regained a sense of action and found solutions to unprecedented difficulties

For staff members and management, the switchover to remote working was easily carried out up to 80%. There has been an increase in work efficiency, at least in the first few weeks. This applies to most departments. The financial and human resources directorates still operate at full capacity. The implementation of short-time working and parental leave has been limited. Nevertheless, there is fear around the issue of postponing holidays to the beginning of next term, which would seriously disrupt work organization for all. 

Relationships between university members have intensified at the territorial level, but they have also been strengthened between university presidents, thanks to the Conference of University Presidents (CPU), and between medium-sized city universities, thanks to the Alliance of Universities for Research and Training (AUREF). 

Liaising with the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation (MESRI) and the Rectorate has been maintained without practical difficulty. Regular meetings are being held. However, university presidents have stressed the fact that MESRI’s reflection and contribution were rather out of touch with reality. The link between the Ministry and the universities is losing strength, with the latter being sent back to the field and to the emergencies related to the crisis. All universities declare having gained a great deal of autonomy during the lockdown. Relationships between university members have intensified at the territorial level, but they have also been strengthened between university presidents, thanks to the Conference of University Presidents (CPU), and between medium-sized city universities, thanks to the Alliance of Universities for Research and Training (AUREF). These "networks" turn out to be particularly useful for exchanging practices and solutions during the crisis.

The financial consequences of the crisis have not yet fully impacted university budgets. In the short term, many expenses concerning on-site activities are cancelled, with the effect of improving budgetary margins or of offsetting shortfalls. This is less true of bigger universities such as the University of Bordeaux. Because of the cancellation of many ongoing experiments, the parting out of menageries, and the postponement of calls for proposals, the losses incurred are considerable for scientific research. The University of Bordeaux expects a short-term loss of several million euros. As for the UPJV, the shortfall on apprenticeships and on various executive training programs will cost several million euros as well. 

University presidents are drawing attention to the financial issues at stake for the beginning of the academic year 2020-2021. They are taking into account both the cost of reshaping the education system, perhaps having to maintain distance learning for part of the students, and the uncertainty of the student influx.

Why the beginning of the next term is now the main concern

One of today’s major concerns is with new graduates having to find a job. The idea of a "sacrificed generation" is frequently used, expressing the massive difficulties to be encountered by these graduates in entering the job market. The unemployment rate due to the economic crisis will be very high, and will strongly affect young people. Not only will their conditions of access be massively degraded, but the entry-level wages, for those lucky enough to earn them, will be significantly reduced.

Most university presidents are already looking ahead to the start of the autumn term and more broadly to the academic year 2020-2021, trying to secure it in a fluctuating and highly uncertain environment.

At this stage, certain crucial issues have emerged from their reflections and discussions.

  • How to guarantee student enrollment for the next school year? Because of the economic crisis, many students or prospective students will either drop out of university or give up on their wish to go into higher education. How can these potential students be helped? The case of international students is also a major issue for universities. Applications from abroad are expected to drop sharply; in addition, foreign students who are already enrolled are likely to give up their program, since they will not be able to reach their university. Will there be a "dead year" for international students? This subject is all the more important as foreign students are, in the case of certain universities, the main pool of doctoral students. Enrollment for master's degrees is extremely competitive internationally, and the qualitative development of research highly depends on it. This is true in France and abroad. 
  • The likely need to pursue digital pedagogy. Many university presidents fear that their international students will not be able to reach French campuses. Thus, distance learning will have to be maintained and expanded. Moreover, universities will probably need to re-organize their programs in order to support social distancing measures, which will certainly lead to a combination of distance and on-site courses. 
  • The need to design a new spatial organization of the university, to a greater or lesser extent. How can the flows of students and staff be secured within the university? What room configurations should be preferred?
  • A strong concern about the recruitment of teachers appointed for the beginning of the school year. Will it take place? If so, under what conditions? Should election committees be set up through videoconferences?
  • Another major concern regards university funding, especially for research centers. How to make up for the time that has been lost? The new Multi-annual Research Programming Law (LPPR) (a draft bill proposed by the French government, aiming to plan the budget for research and universities) does not seem to be enough. 

How universities will evolve after the crisis

What lessons can be learned from the universities' handling of the Covid-19 crisis?

  • By being able to respond immediately to the new conditions created by the health crisis, and thus demonstrating remarkable adaptability to meet their responsibilities, the institutions and staff members have proven very resilient.
  • The efficiency of teleworking and digital tools has been verified, suggesting that such behaviors and practices will remain. Pedagogy has become a major area of progress, establishing a new type of relationship between students and teachers.
  • Such elements and practices have led universities and academic communities to demonstrate their capacity of solving internal problems, ultimately ensuring their autonomy.
  • Internal reporting has changed, giving greater weight and legitimacy to university presidents and their teams. Internal dialogue between the center and the periphery has become standard practice. All this has resulted in an improved and strengthened governance.
  • The capacity to manage all issues at a local or territorial level. During the health crisis, strong links have been established with the Regional Health Agency (ARS) and with the prefectures.
  • All CROUS centers eventually adopted the global scheme of a university-led social assistance.
  • The universities’ international policies have shown the quality of existing partnerships, as well as the quality of international academic networks. However, the central question of the attractiveness of French universities abroad is likely to be questioned in the future. Student international mobility will have to be thoroughly reorganized, and new schemes will have to be designed.


Copyright: Alain JOCARD / AFP

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