ERG SES C 03, Language and Education
Higher education in France has changed enormously with the democratization of education, but this has been the result of political decisions and research has been used to study its consequences with marginal influence on government strategy. The Langevin-Wallon Plan (1947) which was finally passed by the government of Charles De Gaulle and his highly efficient Education Minister Jean Berthoin in 1959 supplied the growing economy and industries with a well-trained labor force. The statistics of the French Education Ministry showing the demographic increase in French education are impressive: in 1931, 2.5% of that 17-18 year olds received baccalaureate; in 1960, 10%; in 1990, 43% and in 2005 it was 70%.
My research is on the changing demographic profile of Engineering students and its effect on second language acquisition and student motivation because it is a very good example of this larger phenomenon. This is a top-down policy making process that has had very positive effects as well as negative consequences that are often in conflict with potential solutions. The best Engineering Schools or Grandes Ecoles have been of particular interest to successive French Governments since the first one Polytechnique was founded in 1794 to produce engineers to help the Revolutionary war effort. Since 2000 many of the Engineering Grandes Ecoles have been encouraged by the government to increase their size and/or assemble into groups of schools to avoid being absorbed by local universities which are much bigger in size. In the case of INSA-Strasbourg, it has gone from around 800 students to 1700 in the last 15 years and in 2003 it became the fifth school in the Institut National des Science Appliquées or INSA group.
The benefits are that these schools become truly international adding diversity to the student body and facilitating more exchanges within the INSA system and internationally which enhances its reputation and opens more doors professionally for its best students. But this increased demographic diversity brings in weaker students who have scholastic and professional opportunities that they are unequipped to take advantage of and the schools are unable to help them attain. Since the early-1990s, the TOEIC has been used as the language assessment necessary for students to receive their Master’s degree in the highly selective Grandes Écoles. Scores ranging from 850/990 to +950/990 are the norm in Grande Écoles specializing in the Social Sciences and the Humanities. In Engineering Schools however, the linguistic requirements are lower: 785/990 is required by the Commission de Titres d’Ingénieurs (CTI) which gives these schools their accreditation and in exchange demands this evaluation. An authenticated B2 English level thus guarantees future employers that young engineers are able to, as stated in Tome 2 of the CTI guidelines entitled References and Orientations, “… work in an international context...” (Version 2012 – 2015, p. 37) (my translation).
Be that as it may, since many Engineering Schools neither include language assessment in their application process, nor make language teaching a curriculum priority, over half of student engineers find it difficult to fulfill this linguistic requirement. In 2003 the Institut National des Sciences Appliquée in Strasbourg, France (INSA-Strasbourg) started language assessments using the TOEIC and as a result 40% of the students were leaving the school without their engineering diploma because they had less than the 730/990 demanded at that time. The weakest language students in the 3rd and 4th years of the INSA 5 year Master’s program are the subjects of my doctoral research in second language acquisition and student motivation. Most of these students, unlike the majority of INSA students, come from 2 year technical programs and are from working class backgrounds.
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