Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Bureaucracy, ici? Mais non!

'Ze Gallic shrug - key to blending in amongst the locals.

A comment on my post below, from Mr P, reminding me of the need to keep records of dining sessions, had me harking back to my time at a Parisian Uni.

I was ostensibly there on an exchange programme, but for various reasons (incompetence of those in charge of the programme factored highly) I ended up having to do a lot of organising myself.

For a city that is only two and a half hours away from my native Londres, it was a world away in terms of the student experience. We all complain about how dire University administrators are, about how the library never has enough copies of X textbook, or how the computers are really slow, how lecture rooms are cold, Facebook petitions and Student Union motions to complain against an electronic timetable online that provided some people with the wrong dates for example at my uni. We are a nation that is becoming expert in the art of the complaint.

But, proving Maslow's theory, I started to think back on how lucky I had been at my UK uni. Slow computers? At least we had computer facilities- French students had no such luxuries. I recall being the only student in a lecture room of 600 with a laptop, the locals were all scribbling away on their funny graph paper notebooks.

Yes, that's right 600 students in a lecture. At least, that's what the people who wrote the timetables decided would work. Without consulting the facilities people who might have told them that that lecture theatre only held 450 people, including 50 sat on the floor/ stood up. Through a 2-3 hour session. Which inevitably meant turning up half an hour early for classes if you wanted a look in. This is the socialist 'equality of opportunity' approach, it seems!

Having previously preferred the fashionably late approach to lectures, I quickly learned to change my habits. Especially as lecturers (if that's what you can call people who stood at the front reading from their book- verbatim) shunned the use of microphones, and so if you were in the back you really were there only to be in the spirit of things than to actually hear/learn/take any decent notes.

So, no computers, libraries with few up to date books, exams where you had to bring your own paper (no joke), over crowded lecture theatres, lecturers that didn't care about what you had to say unless you had at least 10 years higher education - which was surprisingly common, given the seemingly stupendous amount of over-qualification of the French student body.

That was one of the things which struck me about the whole experience. High unemployment levels, it seemed, but yet the workforce seemed massively overeducated.
For most purposes over here, a degree is more than sufficient. 3 years study in France, the 'license' level might as well have been A-levels. I knew one guy who was tutoring students privately who had a Phd and still couldn't get a job. This in a country with no split profession (i.e couldn't get a job as solicitor or barrister). And I say overeducated rather than overskilled- a lot of the students in my tutorials were certainly 'book smart' but were no good at problem questions, or thinking outside the box.

In many ways, I wonder whether entrance to the Bar is going the same way: i.e. ever higher standards needed to get in. Where a decent bachelor's used to suffice, the sharp competition now necessitates Masters, LLMs, previous career experience, and Phds, which now seem much more commonplace. The difference is, of course, that in Paris, it cost me 160 euros to sign up for the year, and would have been a similar price to stay on for further years. So it's no great loss financially to stay on at uni there to improve your prospects, whereas over here you're talking tens of thousands of pounds for the GDL, BVC, LLMs etc. 'Qualification inflation' here, given the costs and investment required surely threatens diversity in a way that simply doesn't apply in France, not to the same degree at least.

The other thing which sticks out in my mind is the abiding memory of paperwork. On actual paper, using old fashioned carbon copies, written in curly cursive. The weeks it took to actually enroll on the course, the signing and countersigning of documents, and finally triple signing in a different department in a different part of the city. Heaven forfend that you lose a document (I got a severe dressing down for this- organisation has never been a strong point, you may be getting that sense!).

And after signing up for the course, you had to sign up for the actual lectures/tutorials. I'm not sure how big the 'year' was- probably 1-2000, but there were about 600 in a subset following a particular branch of law, myself included. We were told that registration for tutorial sessions for this subset would be done within a 2 hour slot on a particular day in room A23.

We, and the other 600 students turn up to room A23 where we are promptly told that they will be taking a short break because they haven't had a lunchbreak yet and will be back in 5 minutes. 45 minutes later, they open the door. The single door. In the office are 2 people waiting to fill in, by hand, the timetable details for 600 students, a process probably taking 10-15 minutes per student. They had 1 hr 15 remaining in the 2 hour slot.

I was luckily at the front of the queue, by serendipity rather than design I might add, I have no idea what happened to the many who presumably were not seen.

Later on in the year, I was talking to a woman in administration and asking her how the levels of red take and bureaucracy didn't drive them mad. She looked at me askance and I assumed I had mispronounced something, or used the wrong tense. No, she explained , my question was grammatically correct, it's just that they didn't really see this as being 'bureaucracy', they would use that word to describe communist Russia or something...!

So, clearly, it's all relative!


Asp said...

Been there, done that, got the T-Shirt.

My personal highlight of French Uni maladministration (not that there weren't many) was the selection of electives.

We were allowed to chose 1 option per semester, out of a choice of 2. So, I did, and registered with my Course co-ordinator.

By fluke, when signing up for TDs, I found out that my 2nd semester elective choice wasn't running in the second semester. Giving my an "option" of 1 subject.
Telling this to course co-ordinator with others who I'd discovered this alongside, we were told not to be stupid at first. Until he looked at his paperwork.

I might need to copy some posts from my "first blog" which has wonderful highlights, but sadly I can't make public...

Mel said...

Hey asp,

Oh so familiar. Did he then shrug and say 'oh well, what can we do? We might 'ave to work over 35 hours to rectify that...'

The hardest thing I found was the inability to bend rules. In England, generally I've found that being nice and persistent, and nicely persistent will let you scrape by or bend rules. But french uni administration? Hell to the no. You'd think they were maintaining the integrity of some CIA secret info!

Please do copy stuff over, it would be good to read! I'm really not very lucid when talking about my french year, it turns into a bit rant involving strikes on the trains, and preppy parisians using english words to sound cool, and not accepting my bankcards, and people still using cheques.....

*indistinct chatter*

Anonymous said...

Mel, your year in France sounds like an absolute NIGHTMARE!! I don't believe I would EVER have had the patience, or the tact, to put up with such ponderous nonsense and would probaby have ended up in the Bastille for Lamping the Head of The School, or some such!
For What it's worth, there were frequent seating and over subscription problems at my Seat of Learning with people having, in the first instance to sit on the floor/share a seat/stand near the door or at the back, but, as the weeks wore on and the subject matter became more (boring) intense, enough would drop out or avoid going to the lecture completely such that there was, in time copious, and indeed cavernous, room for all!!!

Mel said...

Hey minx

It wasn't all bad, I do like to grumble! I did learn a lot about our French cousins, and how the country works and why the people are the way they are. Or so I like to think! But as far as education went, I wasn't that impressed with undergraduate teaching in law - but then I was probably too brainwashed in my common law, Socratic ways! I should have studied literature or art out there instead! So it's funny when people (particularly in the US) are much more impressed with my year in Paris than my law degree at a top UK Uni!

That toootally happened when people clicked that one professor was actually reading from his book, and so by the end of the first term few people were turning up. But in other lectures/subjects they continued to go because books were expensive and materials not easily available.

Although, blimey compared to what I'm doing now I think I still wouldn't mind being in education!

Asp said...

Not accepting bankcards - I could go on for weeks about French banks (in fact, I did at the time, suffice to say I had 'issues' with my bank). But don't moan about cheques, I used them all the time. Preferably with my UK Driving licence as proof of ID, so I had to expain what bit they needed to copy down onto the back of the cheque ;)

I'll certainly have some 'archive' posts in due course, I last did one just a few weeks ago, but it's a decent idea to bring some more to the fray.