I was a professor at a French university from 1997 to 2002. In France, universities are legally bound to accept any student who has obtained the "baccalaureat" degree at the end of high school (that's 80% of the population). There is no control of either quantity of quality of entering undergraduate students. The best 10% of the student population usually prefer the parallel "grandes ecoles" system and are largely absent from the university student body. The enrollment numbers are only known a few days before the start of the academic year, which leads to last-minute scrambles to hire additional lecturers and open additional sections. Tuition fees are a few hundred dollars per year, and give the student health care benefits, possible access to subsidized student housing, subsidized student cafeterias, rebates on public transportation, on movie theater tickets, etc. Some small fraction of the students enroll solely for those benefits and never appear in class or at exams, so the official enrollment numbers are not quite accurate.
About 50% of the students fail and have to leave the university after two or three uears without a degree. The students' actual knowledge is pretty reasonable by US college standards (a testimony to the quality of French education up to the high school level), but what is striking is their inertia, lack of motivation, and inability to study by themselves outside class time. At the freshman level, there can be discipline problems: students reading newspapers in class, talking aloud, throwing paper airplanes, groups standing up and chatting at the back of the lecture hall, etc. Saddled with fear of future unemployment, even conscientious students exude a feeling of helplessness and morosity.
In terms of number of hours spent in instruction in front of the students, the teaching load is similar to a 2/2 semester load in the US, although efficient organization could in principle reduce it to 2/1. At my university, at least 75% of anyone's teaching had to be at the undergraduate level (at some universities, graduate courses do not even count in the teaching load). To deal with the shortage of instructors, faculty are encouraged to teach (for a little bit of extra money) more than their legal teaching load, and going over by 15% is quite common. Refusing to do so is possible but shunned as un-cooperative. Faculty teach lectures but also (along with graduate TAs) some recitation sections and some labs, and grading is evenly distributed among the instructors. The class size is 150 at the freshman and sophomore levels and 120 at the junior and senior levels, although non-mandatory courses may have much less. There is no required textbook since that would force the students to spend money on books and thus violate the principle of free education.
Incredibly, there is no university-wide calendar. At my former university, undergraduate courses follow the semester system, with recitation sections staggered one week after the lectures and labs further staggered two weeks after the lectures; graduate courses follow the quarter system; coop students follow the "3 weeks on, 3 weeks off" calendar; and the computer engineering school has its own calendar. After the final exam, instructors are allowed several weeks to grade, which further delays committees and jurys. Thus, overall the earliest "last day of class" is in early May and the latest jury is in the first half of July, with a gradually dwindling volume of teaching-related activities between those two dates. By law, students who fail must be given a second chance in the form of a makeup exam, and so a second round of exams, grading, and jurys, happens during the first half of september, just before the start of the new semester. Overall, the only period during which all the faculty are completely free goes from July 14 to August 31. Such a short summer is a serious hindrance to research. Sabbaticals are not a right but a privilege, like some kind of local grant for which the faculty compete with one another, and the number of available sabbaticals is budget-dependent.
Classes, often located half way accross the campus, start as early as 8am and some classes end as late as 6:30pm. Luckily, they have enough classrooms to not need to schedule any classes on Saturdays.
Although professors officially are supposed to spend 1/3 of their work time on each of teaching, research and administrative activities, in practice research is largely viewed as a luxury and must fit in the intervals between lectures and meetings, along with supervision of PhD students. Grants are needed for travel, for which the university has no money. There are many opportunities for grants, usually for minuscule amounts of money . Individual grants are non-existant. In my experience, the grant proposal success rate is high: get together with a few of your research buddies, concatenate your vitas, add the requisite number of pages of text, throw in the right buzzwords, and you're in. Once you have three or four grants, you and your students' travel needs are covered.
The salary is somewhat less than half of that for a comparable position in the US, but because of universal health coverage, retirement benefits, and free education, that difference is not as great as it might seem at first.
Overall, the system is incredibly wasteful and inefficient, and local efforts for reforms are blocked by rules and regulations emanating from the Ministry of Education at the national level. To summarize, compared to a similar position in the US, the salary is half as much, the teaching load is twice as high in practice, the administrative weight is orders of magnitude heavier, and the resulting stress is unbearable.
During my fourth year there, three faculty in my department had sick leaves, for independent reasons caused by stress and exhaustion. This served as a wake-up call for me. The following winter, I successfully applied to Ecole Polytechnique (one of the "grandes ecoles"), and that was the end of my stint as a professor at a French university. I have been there, I have seen what it was like, and... I have been vanquished. To any person who might be considering such a job, I can now repeat the advice that Philippe Flajolet gave me in 1997 when I told him that I was applying: "Don't do it."
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