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The Underpriviledged 'Ghosts' Haunting French Universities

Young people sign up for higher education solely for scholarship money, while officials turn a blind eye to those permanently absent from class. Is this a twisted way to buy social peace?

Empty seats
Empty seats
Pascale Kremer

PERPIGNAN – The sociology exam started less than half an hour ago. In small groups of two or three, a continuous flood of students is leaving the University of Perpignan lecture hall n°4.

None of them answered any of the questions on the test. They only came in to sign the attendance sheet so that they could continue to be eligible for their scholarship. “We just sign and leave as quickly as possible," says one. "Here, we’re being paid to do nothing.”

All swagger and smiles, Ilyes, Ryan and Dylan are very straightforward about this strategy to make a living in times of crisis in this depressed region in the southwest France. “With our scholarship and some off-the-books work here and there, we can easily make 1,500 euros a month.”

Coming out next is a girl in a hurry, running on her high heels. “I have an appointment at the hairdresser, I can’t remember where exactly...” The next two blonde girls who come out of the lecture hall have signed up to take the nurses exam. “The preparatory course is really expensive,” one explains.

Sitting next to each other, Sarah, Fara, Sabrina, Samia and some other girls did not really take the test either. Half of them are dressed like reality TV starlets; the other half wear headscarves. They are repeating their first year of sociology (“It’s not interesting, it doesn’t get you anywhere”) after passing a vocational baccalaureate in secretarial work, and failing to get into a vocational degree. They have been working here and there, “at KFC’s,” or as cleaning ladies.

Ends meeting

Scholarship money? “They should give us more!” They laugh. “I usually spend it all in three days: phone bill, clothes, and it’s gone. There’s just no chance we could get 400 euros a month from our parents!”

Slightly apart from the group, one of the girls’ brothers is listening with some embarrassment. After his vocational classes, his application to the vocational degree he dreamed about was rejected, then he couldn't find a job, not even temporary. “Four hundred euros helps make ends meet,” he says, when you are the eldest of four children, with a father working as a shopkeeper and a mother doing cleaning jobs. “It’s not like I’m happy here. I’d rather be doing what I like.”

Aude Harle, director of the sociology department, comes out of the lecture theatre with a pile of 84 tests papers that have not been filled out, for a total of 161 students signed up for the exam. Two days before, for the law exam, there were around 60 blank test papers out of 300. In social economics, 20 out of 80.

The university is getting so concerned about these "ghost" students that the number of students enrolled has been limited in sociology and social economics, so as to avoid last-minute enrolments.

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Empty classroom at the University of Perpignan - Photo: Kippelboy

“We have always had fake students, but the trend has been accelerating in the past two or three years, along with the rise in the unemployment rate,” explains Fabrice Lorente, president of the University of Perpignan.

This region near the border with Spain, has the third highest unemployment rate in the country. “These young people come looking for a minimum income, and it’s quite tiny – it shows that they are struggling.”

The scholarship amounts to 470 euros a month from September to June. Students are allowed to have a job on the side, are exempt from tuition fees, and have access to social security and various discounts, particularly in transports. In return, they have to attend exams and tutorials.

Students are supposed to stay in the exam room for a third of the examination time, so that latecomers can be admitted. But teachers are having trouble keeping these fake students quiet: they come with no pen, fidget with impatience, shout at each other, use their mobile phones and sometimes try to sneak out of the room. “They were being so noisy today that I threatened to throw them out and mark them as absent,” says Harle.

Quite a frightening prospect. Being absent means you lose the scholarship. The sociologist now organizes the lecture hall so that students who actually want to take the exam are not disturbed; she encourages “those who want to leave quickly” to sit on the right side, and then lets them out, a row at a time.

Class tensions

Tutorial supervisors are also under pressure – if students miss three tutorials, they cannot attend the exam, and lose their scholarship as a consequence. For two or three hours in a row, tutorial supervisors struggle to catch the students’ attention, while many of them are unruly, chatting among themselves, listening to music, sending text or sleeping on their desks.

The dean of the University is angry: this phenomenon is having a negative impact on first year statistics. “We are being blamed for low success rates. But these students don’t want to work! And the way the system works means that funding is allocated according to first year success rates.” The success rate is 15% in social economics, 29% in sociology, but 44% overall on all courses, once the ghost student problem has been diluted. The University of Perpignan nonetheless ranks 9th in France.

According to Nicolas Marty and Yves Picod, heads of the faculties of art and law, this is a way for the state to buy social peace. The governments turn a blind eye to these scholarships, which are giving families an extra income and keeping many young people out of the unemployment statistics.

For Marty and Picod, these grants should only be allocated to students who reach minimum results. Not excellent marks, as long as they do not fail... But among sociology teachers, the issue is more sensitive: they fear their subject may be stigmatized, and all scholarship students discarded as frauds, when some of them have excellent marks. They fear a whole generation of youngsters might be blamed.

Moreover, in Perpignan, most underprivileged young people are often from families who emigrated from North Africa, which adds fuel to anti-immigration rhetoric. Eliane Le Dantec, sociology professor, is worried about the situation: “During exams, we can now see that students are more and more class-conscious, and there is some animosity between disadvantaged working-class students and those who are better off, working-class or middle-class," says Le Dantec. "While university is supposed to be a place of diversity, we can now hear racist remarks.”

Earlier on, two girls coming out of the lecture theatre pointed out a group of young men of North African descent: “These guys are just taking advantage of the system, they’re not even looking for a job.”

These young people who struggle financially, and whose parents are often unemployed, Harle knows them well. “They are not parasites! Objectively, they just need some money to subsist. They don’t know what they want yet, and for them university was the default solution, even if they don’t have the necessary background knowledge for it. In sociology, we have some students that come from vocational baccalaureates in cooking or masonry! They don’t study, but they hang in there because if they give up, they have to pay back the scholarship money they have received since the beginning of the course…”

Could a welfare allowance for young people solve the problem? For Jean Jacob, who teaches political science, it would at least help clarify the situation. Students would then be able to study in peace. And the rest would not have to cheat the system anymore.

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