‘Sorry, no place for you’: How the fate of French students is based on lottery

‘Sorry, no place for you’: How the fate of French students is based on lottery

What if your dream of becoming a famous surgeon went up in smoke because of a lack of space in universities?


This is what could happen to 850 French students whose applications to medical schools were rejected. This year, 169 academic programs lacked the space to accept students (compared to 78 academic programs in 2016). Because of the many applicants competing for limited spots, universities have turned to using a lottery to determine which students are admitted and which are not.

This was the case for Roxane, 18, who wanted to enter a university in Paris to study Psychology. “There were no spots available for psychology majors in any university in Paris. It seemed like the only choice I had was to stay in Paris to study Sociology, which wasn't even what I wanted to study. So, I looked for open spots in universities that were in less populated cities in France. This is how I found the University of Amiens, where there are no space restrictions,” she told Global Young Voices.

Students watch the sunset by the Seine River in Paris.Credit: Jorge Royan/Wikimedia

Students watch the sunset by the Seine River in Paris.
Credit: Jorge Royan/Wikimedia

By law, universities must accept all Baccalauréat holders. However, because of the increase in the number of students (40,000 more students every year since 2014) and rise of students who continue their studies after receiving their Baccalauréat, universities face a lack of financial resources, staff, and infrastructure. Even the former Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research under the second Valls Government, Thierry Mandon, said, “We haven’t put more resources available.”

During their last year of high school, French students register on APB (Admission Post Bac), a platform that simplifies the procedures to register for studies after receiving their Baccalauréat.

Board of European Students of Technology meets at the University of Paris-Saclay in southern Paris.Credit: J. Barande/École Polytechnique Flickr

Board of European Students of Technology meets at the University of Paris-Saclay in southern Paris.
Credit: J. Barande/École Polytechnique Flickr

If a field suffers from a lack of space and cannot accept all students’ requests, the platform first selects students depending on their geographical zone (a student who completed their Baccalauréat in Lille is more likely to be accepted to a University in Lille than a student coming from Paris). The next criterion in selecting the students is based on the order of their wish list; a student who puts a university in the field of Psychology as their first wish is more likely to be accepted than a student who selected it as their second choice. The last criterion is the family status of the applicant. Students who are married or have children have priority.

If, after reviewing these criteria, admissions platforms are unable to decide, they will proceed to a lottery. This remedy is normally forbidden (although it has been used in the past), but since the Official Bulletin (the official announcement of new law texts), was released in April 2017, the Ministry of Education has allowed it. “It is unfair… some students have excellent grades at the end of high school and are not accepted in the field of study of their choice, even though they absolutely deserve it,” said Maxence, 25, who works in a real estate agency.

This situation presents students with serious dilemmas. “I have not been accepted to the License in International Trade I wanted… either I lose one year, or I study by myself,” confides Jérémy, an aspiring economics student in high school.

Antoine, another student, says, “I am passionate about sports. However, I have been rejected from 12 universities as a STAPS (license of sport) applicant because of the lottery. What hurts me the most is to think that at least a third of the students accepted will give up after one semester after realizing they have no interest in this field.”

Although many agree on the injustice of the lottery, there are few alternatives. However, some advocate for a selection of students prior to their entry at university (a student with a Baccalauréat in literature would not be able to enter a university in computer science). “The problem in France is that universities are crowded in September, and less full mid-October,” Roxane said. Indeed, 46.2 percent of first-year university students do not access the second year, according to a study conducted by the Ministry of Higher Education in 2013. This study also shows that more than one fourth of first-year university students drops out or changes major during or after their first year, and more than one third of first-year university students repeats their first year. “Many students enter a field without really knowing what it is about, relying on preconceived ideas. I believe selecting students with an entry exam could be a solution,” Roxane added.

The Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in ParisCredit: Vincent Desjardins/Flickr

The Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in Paris
Credit: Vincent Desjardins/Flickr

However, this impedes trial and error. As Etienne Liebig, an educator in Paris, said, “there is a significant difference between 18 and 20 years old (hence, between adolescence and adulthood). Many students enter university without great conviction and leave after 2 years without a diploma, while the French government invests a significant amount of money (approximately 11,680 euros per student) to ensure the education of its students.”

“Another solution would be to guide students before they leave high school and provide them all the information they need about the field of study they want to enter, so as to avoid disengagement,” Roxane said. Students such as Loris and Justine, both 18, also advocate for the increase in the size of universities so that they can accept more students.

In any case, the Conference of Universities estimates the cost of welcoming all students at 1 billion euros per year. However, as French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said, this might entail a “deficit slippage.”

Only the next months can tell us the choice the French government takes to remedy this situation. For now, we can only hope the best for the French students who are still unsure of what (and where) they will study this September.

Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV

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