Walking through the Université de Paul-Valery in Montpellier, France, you wouldn’t think it was a university. Concrete buildings comprise the main campus and are surrounded by a metal fence that remains locked when classes are not in session. There are no elaborate student union buildings offering pizza and pool, no posh bookstores and no majestic neo-classical libraries. There are no sprinklers spewing water during a rainstorm onto the neatly cultivated lawn.
The reason for this disarray is obvious: unlike in the United States, university in France is open to anyone at a small cost after students pass the Baccalauréate (Bac). The Bac is infamous for being extremely difficult and problematic; however, once a student endures the grueling process of the Bac, they are free to enter into university regardless of financial situation. Students select a very narrowed field which they will not stray from in their three years of undergraduate education.
Additionally, students in France are not required to buy textbooks. I can’t quite describe the extreme relief I felt when I knew I was not going to be forced to spend $300 to $700 on textbooks. If reading material is required, the professor creates what is called a fascicle, which is basically just a handmade manual for the class comprised of photocopies. This system stems from the belief that students should not be able to buy a grade, and if certain students can afford textbooks while others cannot, this creates disparity in education.
Guillame Petit, a French student from Nimes, a neighboring city, who I met in a philosophy of ideas course commented on the differences in systems. He described, “Here, university is viewed as a place of self-improvement. You go because you want to become better and there are no strings attached.” He later on mentioned that it his belief that the system in America encourages buying degrees.
I saw evidence of Petit’s claim in class. There is an abnormally high attendance rate, and not because the professor is taking attendance. In both the lecture and the recitation, students show up to better their knowledge of the subject and get extra help for the final exam. Because education is offered as an opportunity which cannot be redone, most students take it very seriously. In publicly funded education students do not have the option to change majors, take an extra year, or do it again. Generally, students have three years to get it right and are locked into their program until they graduate.
On the other side, students are not guaranteed much. According to Laurence Blin, a professor of translation, a strike, holiday, or even an exam has the potential to not happen. She described the opposite side of this process, explaining “University is free and I have no qualms with that, but they [students or the administration] have nothing to lose.” This can make for a frustratingly slow and interruptible educational experience. Students have to be very committed to make their education worthwhile.
When comparing this reality to the notion that universities in the United States are selling a lifestyle experience as well as an education, it begins to make sense. Even administratively, students cannot go online, register and go to class. Registration for each class requires two to three steps and multiple emails chains between the departments, the coordinators and the professors. It’s a messy, frustrating process, but it does eliminate students who do not really feel like college is worth their time.
Now, don’t get me wrong, education is one of the most invaluable and fulfilling experiences possible. But I can’t help but admire a system that doesn’t tolerate students who are so full of apathy they would rather spend the afternoon playing video games than going to a seminar. They may not repave the parking lot every summer, the textbooks may be comprised of photocopies, and there is no espresso bar (which I confess to missing terribly). However, as long as a student shows dedication and the desire to make him or herself better, the university’s doors are open and truly accessible to all.