Last week I was fortunate to be invited to travel to Paris to speak at a conference hosted by the Institut national d’études demographiques (INED) – the French Institute for Demographic Studies. Most of the conference delegates were French, or at least based in France, so conversations during the coffee breaks served to enlighten me on what is going on in the French higher education sector at the moment.

While we, in the UK, have been preoccupied with our own strikes by University and College Union (UCU) members over proposed cuts to staff pensions, our counterparts in France have been dealing with strikes of their own – this time, not by staff but by students.

Since March 2018, students at universities across France have been coming together to protest about new Government proposals to give public universities the power to set tighter admissions criteria and to rank applicants using school records. This is felt by many to be a violation of the principle of égalité– one of the three core values of France, where higher education is based on the principle of free access for all.

The French public university admissions system has traditionally meant that any student passing their school-leaving examinations (the baccalauréat) can enrol in any university, on any course, irrespective of the grades obtained. Yet, the current French Government under Emmanuel Macron holds this approach responsible for overcrowding in French universities, where – as conference delegates told me – it is not uncommon to have over 1,000 students trying to attend a single lecture, with many of them having to sit on steps or cram into the aisles in lecture halls. In some universities, it is not uncommon for lectures to be live-streamed so that those who cannot fit in to the lecture hall can at least watch proceedings in adjacent rooms on campus.

Policymakers and university leaders alike also blame France’s current ‘open doors’ admissions policy for their public universities’ poor attrition rates – with over 60 per cent of students failing to complete their higher education course within four years. Of course, France has long had selective higher education institutions as well, known as grandes écoles. However, these remain firmly outside the main network of the French public university system and generally select students for admission at the postgraduate level.

Overcrowding in French public universities reached crisis point last year when universities resorted to using a tirage au sort lottery-style system to dole out places in already-oversubscribed courses. Perceiving this system to be ‘unfair’ and ‘unsatisfactory’, Macron’s administration is proposing to introduce a more selective, merit-based system, in which universities will be able to award places based on previous academic attainment, as well as scores for motivation and aptitude, appropriate for a student’s desired course.

This has not gone down well with French students. Just last Friday, Paris’s Sorbonne University – a public university, not a grande école, despite its international reputation – was shut down as riot police were called in to evict protesting students. Many of those protesting see the new Government policy as an infringement of the right to study what one chooses and disadvantaging those from less privileged backgrounds.

From my own British perspective – coming from a country that takes great pride in continuing to increase participation in higher education – it took me back how, just across the English Channel (or la Manche if you prefer), politicians are intent on reducing student numbers to save the quality and standing of their university system. I have recently co-authored HEPI’s report into Demand for higher education to 2030, which predicts universities in England need to prepare for at least 300,000 extra full-time undergraduate places by the end of the next decade. I had always taken this to be good news for English universities, so it was strange to hear talk in France of the need to cut student numbers and restrict university admissions.

Learning first-hand about this change in direction for higher education policy in France has made me reflect on the significance of our own regulatory changes here in England. For years now – and rightly so – UK universities have been going to great lengths to take something from the French commitment to égalité and open up access to higher education to all those who aspire to it. However, with the French now taking lessons from the more stratified UK higher education system and increasing selectivity as a way of ensuring those who enter university can succeed in their ambitions, this highlights the importance of not just focusing on the quantity of students in our universities and colleges but on the quality of their experience as well.

The establishment of the role of Director of Fair Access and Participation within the Office for Students (OfS) is a significant step in the right direction. With oversight of new Access and Participation Plans – a mandatory requirement for all ‘providers’ of higher education in England wishing to be registered in the ‘Approved (fee cap)’ category – the Director of Fair Access and Participation is tasked with ensuring universities do not just open up access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds and under-represented communities, but also encourage them to progress, achieve and succeed.

The British and French may share a complex history of rivalry and competition in many walks of life. However, when it comes to ensuring fair and healthy higher education systems on both sides of the water, it seems that now is the time we can both learn something from each other. A winning formula for the higher education policies of the future is certainly looking like one which combines the French commitment to opening access for all with the British duty to ensuring fruitful participation for all those who enrol.