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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 Françoise 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 percent – nowhere near as bad as Spain’s 56.1 percent youth unemployment rate, but still higher than Britain's 20.9 percent – according to the latest Eurostat figures.

The government is rolling out a state-subsidized jobs program 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, Geneviève 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 U.S. and the U.K, students are taught to work on projects together,” Gri says, “but in France, students work alone. They attend classes in large amphitheaters and are rarely involved in group projects, especially in humanities.

“It’s easy to address this issue, but it does require some organization, 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. “We ranked sixth in the world for the quality of our scientific publications, and yet we are between 20th and 25th for innovation,” Fioraso told the business daily Les Echos last month. “We struggle to transform inventions in our labs into innovations that will create jobs.”

But closing the gap between the realms of academe and business is no small task: relations between France’s universities and corporate world are at best cordial, often nonexistent and sometimes downright hostile.

“The real problem is that most company leaders have a pathological mistrust of universities,” says Marc Neveu, who teaches IT at the University of Burgundy in Dijon and is co-head of the higher education trade union Syndicat National de l’Enseignement Supérieur (Snesup). “They all come from engineering schools and think that students are lazy and dilettantes.”

France’s higher education system is split into two tiers. The elite grandes écoles train engineers, scientists and business leaders, while universities shape the minds of the country’s researchers.

Neveu believes that British and German businesses have more trust in those who study and work in universities and are keen to hire candidates with Ph.D.s. “In Germany and in the UK, most of the employees in R&D have Ph.D.s; here it’s less than half,” he laments.“If we want to foster innovation, we have to rely on our Ph.D. students; it’s absurd not to.”

Many corporate leaders admit that they ignore the world of academe and tend to recruit from the cohorts of the grandes écoles. But they also argue that universities fail to direct employers towards graduates who might fulfill their needs.

Sup’Emploi hopes to foster links between these two worlds. But it is unclear how many academics will take its recommendations to heart.

According to Neveu, the committee gives too much power to company leaders. As a consequence, he believes, its recommendations will narrow perspectives for students rather than open new horizons. “They will privilege courses that fulfil. specific needs in the market instead of encouraging wide-ranging courses that teach our students to become citizens, to acquire humanist values,” Neveu says.“If university courses are too targeted, they will prevent students from moving towards new courses, new jobs.”

Sup’Emploi also aims to encourage the growth of stages en alternance (in which students undertake work placements along with their studies) to strengthen links between universities and businesses.

The government hopes to increase the number of participants in such programs in secondary and postsecondary education to 500,000 by 2017. The most recent figures available, those for 2011, show that 426,000 students were involved that year. Of those participants, 14 percent were enrolled in higher education, compared with just 3 percent 15 years earlier.

But although universities are offering more and more stages en alternance, the figures hide great disparities, according to Gri.

“Universities such as [Paris-Est] Marne-la-Vallée run some great apprenticeships, but sadly other universities aren’t so committed,” she says. “It’s a shame because the figures show that the more contacts a student has with companies, the greater chance he has of finding a job.”

The committee is expected to release its first recommendations in the spring.

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