Maïa De La Baume. A new French government survey that ranks public universities by graduate students’ employment rates after graduation has already earned both praise and criticism from academics.
The Ministry of Higher Education and Research surveyed 43,000 graduate students from 63 of France’s 83 universities. The study found that, on average, 91.4 percent of students were employed within 30 months of graduation, rising to 92.3 percent for those with degrees in science, technology or health.
“The result is interesting in itself,” said Jacques Fontanille, president of the University of Limoges, which came 38th in the ranking, with 91.2 percent. “It shows that French universities worked well.”
But while the study’s results were meant to underscore that the universities were not, as critics have claimed, “unemployment factories,” some university leaders and education experts called the survey simplistic and inaccurate. They added that they worried that the use of such performance indicators might undermine a system that has been based on principles calling for uniform teaching and learning conditions throughout the country.
“We weren’t prepared for a ranking,” said Yannick le Long, who runs the Institute for the Study of Student Life at the University of Rouen, which participated in the study. “It’s just silly and lacks objectivity. It’s all about consumption, like saying, ‘You can buy this car rather than that one.”’
The ranking of universities is a first in a country where universities are public, almost free and open to any citizen who has passed the baccalauréat, the high school exit examination. It is part of a broad effort by President Nicolas Sarkozy to overhaul France’s public university system, which has been called sclerotic and unambitious, by granting schools financial autonomy and pushing the increased use of performance measures.
French universities have lost a great deal of their attractiveness over the years, critics concede, as private institutions and particularly the Grandes Écoles, the elite schools that all but guarantee top jobs for life, have grown in popularity.
The ministry said, however, that the study challenged common perceptions.
“It has stricken down many prejudices,” the French minister of higher education and research, Valérie Pécresse, said in a recent interview in Le Figaro magazine. The ranking “is a real revolution of mentalities.”
“For a long time, universities considered that their responsibility would end after delivering students’ diplomas,” Ms. Pécresse said. But now, she said, helping students find a job after graduation “has become their new mission.”
The survey, which was conducted between December 2009 and July of this year and was made public last month, also provided information on recruitment, the profile of employers and the proportion of graduates from each university holding long-term work contracts.
But there was dissent from the beginning. France’s most competitive universities, including Dauphine and Jussieu in Paris, declined to participate in the survey, saying they had already conducted similar surveys of their graduates.
For Patrick Porcheron, vice president in charge of teaching and careers at Pierre and Marie Curie University, the ranking is “a null and void work that doesn’t deserve any publicity.”
Many university professors and students say such a ranking could create a patchwork of better and worse institutions, instead of a homogenous offering across the country. One prominent student union, FAGE, worried that low-ranked universities might see declines in enrollment.
“We would prefer a map of universities rather than a ranking,” FAGE said in a statement on its Web site.
Paris-XI Sud ranked highest in the survey (94.9 percent), followed by Lyon I (94.5 percent) and Rennes I (94.3 percent), while Perpignan (84.1 percent) and La Reunion (77.6 percent) in one of the country’s overseas territories, came last.
Many of the smaller universities in the survey, like the University of Pau, in southwestern France, or Le Mans, in western France, found themselves among the highest post-graduation employment rates, ahead of larger institutions like Aix-Marseille or Toulouse.
The main association of university presidents, in a statement posted on its Web site, noted that since 2007, Mr. Sarkozy’s plans had confronted French universities with “a new economic model.” But it said the results of the ranking show “differences that are too slight and indicators that are too few” for universities to develop a strategy.
For Mr. Fontanille, of the University of Limoges, the problem is more about improving the quality of employment opportunities for undergraduate degrees rather than master’s. In 2006, according to the Ministry of Higher Education, only about half of all students completed a bachelor’s degree within the standard three years.
“There is a lot of work that still needs to be done on employment for undergraduate students,” he said. “Too many people in France quit before getting an undergraduate degree and then struggle to integrate themselves into the workplace.”