Page last updated at 00:43 GMT, Friday, 14 March 2008

French students shy of real world

Agnes Urhweiller (left) chats with Aurelie at the careers advice centre
Agnes Urhweiller describes France's education system as a "has been"

Between the two rounds of the French local elections, BBC correspondent Emma Jane Kirby is travelling around France, testing the temperature of voters.

In Montpellier, she is told that France's education system is completely out of sync with the world of business.

Montpellier is very much a young person's city. Students make up 30% of its population, and the pavement cafes are swarming with youngsters who are furiously scribbling in note books or dashing off the final lines of essays.

But despite the nationwide passion for education, surprisingly, not a single French university makes it into the world's top 40.

France may be a global leader in high technology, but employers complain that today there are far too few students studying science and technology and there are far too many studying "soft subjects" which leaves them ill-prepared to join the real world of work.

At Montpellier's Social Science faculty, I watched scores of undergraduates soak up a lecture on basic psychology.

I have studied so much, I am almost overqualified. And now I need a job to get money and I can't find one

There are 65,000 psychology students in France - that is a quarter of the European total for that subject.

I asked a passing student what he wanted to do when he left university. "I want to be an eternal student, " he said. "Just learning for learning's sake."

'Rigid system'

A noble sentiment perhaps, but an impractical one in 21st Century France where unemployment has been doggedly high for the past 20 years.

In France, many young people don't study the right subjects
Agnes Urhweiller
Montpellier careers office

The national unemployment rate may have recently fallen to just under 8%, but in Montpellier it stands at 11.3%.

At the local careers office, counsellor Agnes Urhweiller told me she worried that the French education system was completely out of sync with the world of business.

Ms Urhweiller regularly sees hundreds of students who are well qualified but who have no real skills to offer employers.

"In France, many young people don't study the right subjects," she said as she marked a skills test for a young job seeker.

"I advise them they need practical qualifications to work. I come from the private sector and I know that private businesses need young people and, of course, that is where the money is, too. But our education system is a 'has been' - it's too rigid," Ms Urhweiller said.


A recent survey showed that 75% of graduates want to work in the public sector because civil servants and teachers enjoy a high level of social protection.


But President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to slash thousands of civil servant posts, and a recent economic report commissioned by the government has warned that people must accept the future is not with the state, but with private industry.

Among the youngsters I met searching for jobs at the careers office was 23-year-old Aurelie. She is still baffled as to what she wants to do.

"I have studied so much, I am almost overqualified. And now I need a job to get money and I can't find one," she said.

"Everyone tells you to get a good education but my parents studied much less than I did and yet they didn't have such problems finding work."

'Born into uncertainty'

Marc Willinger, an economist at Montpellier University, believes young people today live in a more precarious world than their parents did.

Not only is finding permanent work more difficult, but - with the state coffers empty - their retirement will not be cushioned by the government hand outs their parents will enjoy.

This generation is having to fend for itself like never before.

"The young generation has been born into uncertainty," Mr Willinger said.

"And they have to live with that every day - not just because of unemployment but also because they have a much higher burden than the previous generation. They will have to care for themselves, for their children and they'll also have to care for their parents' generation."

'Only a waitress'

A few streets away from the university campus I visited a local hostel which provides cheap lodgings for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Kia and Anthony (foreground) play table football with friends
Kia and Anthony (foreground) say they do not expect any state help

Anthony and Kia were playing table football outside the cafeteria. When I asked them what they wanted the government to do to help them succeed in life, both were surprised at the notion that the state should step in to help them.

Kia, who is training to be a waitress, told me she thought young people's expectations were too high.

She said that while some might scoff that she was "only a waitress", she enjoyed her work and believed it was a good thing to get a job and to get on with life.

Anthony, aged 20, is in the catering business. He was also adamant that young people should stand on their own two feet.

"I don't have any family," he said.

"But you can't say the government has to help me because I don't have parents - I can't blame them. Young people are often lazy and think everything is owed to them but we need to work and to prove ourselves and then we can have dignity."

Although he claimed not to be a fan of Mr Sarkozy's, there is no doubt that the president would be a fan of Anthony's.

Sarkozy's vision

The sentiments expressed by Anthony and Kia could almost be Mr Sarkozy's UMP party slogans.

His election campaign last year was run on the mantra: "Work harder if you want to earn more."

And the president still speaks wistfully of a "La France qui se leve tot" (a France which gets up early) - and is ready to go to work.

As I left the hostel, Anthony was preparing to spend his evening in his tiny bedroom listening to teach-yourself-English CDs and teach-yourself-Japanese.

I told him I was impressed with his drive and enthusiasm, and he replied shyly that his dream was to one day enrol at university to study psychology.

I could almost feel President's Sarkozy's heart sink.

France has educated many of the world's greatest intellectuals and is justifiably proud of its erudite heritage.

But with such poor economic growth and such huge public debt, this country now needs its clever young students to leave the university campus and start ploughing their skills and enthusiasms into the profitable world of work.

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