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France – the full LMD finalement?

On 19 December 2016 the French National Assembly voted in favour of a draft law aiming to finally reform Master’s level education in France, in the direction of the full implementation of the Bachelor’s-Master’s-PhD structure (Licence-Master-Doctorat – LMD). The draft law was the result of a compromise reached earlier in the year between the French Minister of National Education, Higher Education and Research, Ms Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Conference of University Presidents (CPU), trade and students union. The change brought about by the new law and with effect from the rentrée 2017, puts an end to the partial implementation of the two-cycle ‘Bologna reform’ in France. Specifically, from the academic year 2017/18 onwards universities will be generally able to select students at the entry into the Master’s level and no longer mid-way, i.e. after the first year of the Master’s, as it was the case until now. There are only two exceptions – programmes in law and psychology – that can continue with the selection between year one and year two of the Master’s.

The LMD structure started to be implemented in France in 2002, following the model 3+2 for the first two cycles. A three-year Bachelor’s education (compared to the prior four-year ‘license’) was followed by a two-year Master’s education. The new Master’s level came to replace the pre-existing specialisation degrees – DEA and DESS. Nevertheless, while the structures were formally changed, the selection that previously took place after four years of undergraduate education, at the entry for DEA and DESS was kept. This technically ‘spilt’ the Master’s level in two parts – Master 1 and Master 2. To be able to continue to the 2nd year of the Master’s, students had to pass an examination. This left many Master’s students without a ‘full’ Master’s degree, as they did not qualify for year two of the Master’s. The continuation of this examination after four years of prior higher education was initially meant to be a transitory measure, allowing for a fully-fledged and thought-through reform of the Master’s level. Although this step was discussed several times in the past 15 years (last most notably in 2007), the political parties and the main stakeholders in the system failed to reach a political agreement until now.

The newly passed law is to bring about two major changes:

  • It is to allow universities to select at the entrance into the Master’s, although the selection criteria, deadlines and procedures are still to be set for most programmes;
  • It is to guarantee to all Bachelor’s graduates the right to continue with a full degree at the Master’s level.

While there is a general agreement between the major actors in the systems on the reform itself, there are several important concerns that remain, related to the practical implementation of these changes. One immediate challenge is the fact that universities need to decide very fast how the selection will be organised in each programme (there are an estimate of 3000 Master’s programmes in France) – based on an application file (on a set of criteria) or based on an exam. Application periods for Master’s programmes in France start already in spring.

Other concerns are related to ensuring the right of Bachelor’s graduates to Master’s level education. This change was particularly welcome by the student unions and labelled as a “measure to democratise the system”. This right is to be guaranteed by the universities themselves. With a view to inform the students, the ministry is setting up an online Master’s platform - – that should give Master’s applicants a full overview of existing options. If a student is not selected to the programme of his/her choice, his/her university has to present the respective students with three other options that fit the student’s interest and profile. At least one of the three options has to be in the same university.

While this sounds very reasonable in theory, it is unclear how it will work in practice, given that universities would have to have a very good understanding of each student’s profile and interests as well as possess real-time data on programmes that still have available places (not only in the own university but also potentially across the country). It is also clear that at least in the first stages of operation the online platform will not be able to facilitate direct applications. Furthermore, it is difficult to estimate how many students that did not get accepted to the programme of their choice will ask to be supported by the universities in finding alternative programmes.

Student unions are particularly concerned by the potential extra costs of this system for the applicants, in case options two or three for the Master’s would require geographical mobility of the student. The issue of providing additional aid for such mobile students has been discussed, but no plans yet detailed on how this could function.

And last but not least, some universities and political forces fear that this reform could further fragment the system, by creating a ‘two-class society’ at Master’s level, with a clear division between the ‘good’, ‘first-choice’ programmes and the other programmes.

It is clear from the current debate that much remains to be decided with regards to the actual implementation of the reform to ensure fair access at Master’s level in France, as well as a smooth processing of applications by universities.

Reform Master’s level education in France - Text of law (only in French)