Magazine article Times Higher Education

There's Not Enough Enterprise among France's Graduates

Magazine article Times Higher Education

There's Not Enough Enterprise among France's Graduates

Article excerpt

The government is pressing universities to do more to make young people employable, but not everyone welcomes the effort. Clea Caulcutt reports.

The French Ministry of Higher Education and Research is trying to bridge the gap between universities and the corporate world. But its latest venture, an advisory group on curriculum reform headed by business leaders, is rubbing some academics up the wrong way.

"We cannot stand by and watch our youth fall victim to the economic crisis," says Francoise Gri, co-president of the advisory group, Sup'Emploi, and chief executive of the tourism firm Pierre et Vacances. "It's a national challenge: France can emerge from the fray of global competition thanks to the skills and qualifications of its people."

Sup'Emploi, which features representatives from higher education and business, was created in December 2013 to work on guidelines to help universities adapt to the needs of a changing economy.

France's Socialist government is battling to create jobs for the country's young people amid fears that the eurozone's second largest economy is sliding into recession. This year, youth unemployment peaked at 26.1 per cent - nowhere near as bad as Spain's 56.1 per cent youth unemployment rate but still higher than the UK's 20.9 per cent - according to the latest Eurostat figures.

The government is rolling out a state-subsidised jobs scheme to get businesses hiring young job-seekers, but it is also turning to the country's academics to better equip students for the world of work when they leave universities.

"We have to anticipate the changing business needs and not always play catch-up; that's why we have to work together with French companies," the minister for higher education, Genevieve Fioraso, said in December.

'Lagging behind'

Gri complains that French universities have failed to anticipate how the digital revolution has changed the economy. "I don't know where to recruit. There isn't a tourism course in France that trains students in e- commerce. We are lagging behind," she says.

French employers also grumble that university graduates do not acquire skills that are transferable to the workplace. They say that candidates lack vital soft skills, such as IT qualifications, knowledge of English and presentation or project management skills.

"In the US and the UK, students are taught to work on projects together," Gri says, "but in France, students work alone. They attend classes in large amphitheatres and are rarely involved in group projects, especially in humanities.

"It's easy to address this issue, but it does require some organisation, some new ways of working together."

Another common complaint from corporate leaders is that university courses place too much emphasis on narrow academic knowledge and too little on its real-world relevance.

Yves Lecointe, a lecturer in engineering at and a former president of the University of Nantes, shares this concern. "Courses should not cater only for students who want to go into teaching," he says. "What about the others? We can no longer afford to sacrifice the large majority of students who want to pursue other careers."

Lecointe cautions that university officials should not focus solely on the short-term goal of improving graduate employability but rather introduce classes that open up new perspectives for students. One of his suggestions is to give students on technical courses additional classes in law or sustainable development.

Time for a transformation

The Ministry of Higher Education and Research would like to change French universities in more fundamental ways as well. …

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