France is in the midst of a significant presidential election that can possibly change the face of the country. The second round on May 7th offers a choice between two very different candidates— Marine Le Pen, the candidate from the far-right party, National Front, and Emmanuel Macron, the candidate from the center party, En Marche. Looking at the programs of these two candidates and what they have elaborated in the media portend possible changes to the French higher education system during the next 5 years.
A cursory look at the program shows that Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for higher education and research are more developed and more numerous than those from Marine Le Pen. He addresses many more issues, while higher education is a less important axis in the program of Marine Le Pen where she avoids many topics relevant to French higher education today.
While universities today are accessible to any secondary school graduate in France, both candidates have expressed opinions about the adequacy of the system. Marine Le Pen proposes a university admissions process that will be based on merit. In particular, she wants to strengthen the high school exit exam, the baccalauréat, as a selection and orientation instrument. Emmanuel Macron, on the other hand, wants to establish a set of prerequisites for everyone entering university, but does not propose a merit-based selection, rather remediation. In line with this agenda, the baccalauréat will evaluate 4 disciplines through end-of-the-year exams with the rest of the subjects evaluated continuously.
Marine Le Pen proposes a general increase in the higher education budget. Her program specifically refers to a 30 percent increase to the public budget for research. Emmanuel Macron has a more liberal approach. He wants to maintain the current budget of higher education, but this would be complemented by three other reforms: additional budget to be provided to universities on a contractual basis using criteria such as diversity and research performance; universities will be encouraged to find new sources of revenues; and innovative research projects will also be funded.
Both candidates refuse to increase the tuition fees of domestic students, but are open to increasing them for international students, a proposal that has been debated in France recently but failed to gain wide support.
The two candidates hold opposite views in terms of university autonomy. Marine Le Pen considered the law of 2007— that increased the autonomy of French universities, in terms of budget, human resources, and real estate – a failure and does not wish to continue along that path. She does not however address this in her program. Emmanuel Macron wishes to further university autonomy. He has identified the next three steps: universities could choose their degree offerings (under the condition that they offer a vast array of degrees); they would be able to recruit more freely – both professors and leadership; and new governance models would be considered.
Curriculum and evaluation
Marine Le Pen’s main proposal for the higher education curriculum is to abolish the law enabling teaching in a foreign language. She also plans to create more artistic pathways, at the high school and higher education levels. Emmanuel Macron says little about the curriculum, but wants to improve support for students in demanding fields. He proposes student evaluation of courses and also wants to make the evaluation of institutions simpler and more efficient.
One of the only points of convergence for both candidates is the importance of co-operative education at the higher education level (alternance in French) which is a continuation of what has been happening in France in recent years. Marine Le Pen adds that vocational education should be reinforced, and institutions should be responsible for finding internships for students. Emmanuel Macron proposes more transparency through the publication of success rates and professional prospects. He also wants to increase vocational education and life-long learning.
Although internationalization itself is not in either of the candidate’s program, it is indirectly targeted through other proposals that are hard to ignore. Indeed, one of the main differences in the programs of Macron and Le Pen concerns a relationship with the rest of Europe. While Macron is a fierce defender of Europe, Le Pen wants a “Frexit”. The election of either candidate would impact European funding and student mobility in one way or another, and would indubitably impact the future of higher education in France.
Interestingly, research is discussed in both candidate’s programs, as they both consider innovation and research essential for the future of France. Marine Le Pen proposes to promote innovation and research through tax breaks. Emmanuel Macron, on the other hand, wants to improve research through the creation of excellence poles, a continuation of previous reforms. He also wants to make France a leader in environmental research, particularly by being more open to the incoming mobility of experts.
The Future of France’s Higher Education
The higher education programs of both candidates align with their overall political stance. Emmanuel Macron does not propose anything too radical, but furthers several policies that have been implemented recently – including more autonomy, excellence poles, and improved evaluation of courses and institutions. His proposals are in accordance with what has been happening globally in recent years. While Marine Le Pen’s proposals are limited, they embody a complete U-turn of French policies on several key topics – including autonomy and language of instruction. However, it is a point not linked directly to higher education—the withdrawal from the European Union—that could have the greatest consequences for the sector. Whether the French higher education system will be completely changed and more inward-looking under Le Pen’s presidency, or will continue to evolve in the current direction, although maybe with more assertive and decisive leadership, under the leadership of Macron remains to be seen on May 7th. Stay tuned!