Students of ‘La Sorbonne’ and across France face greater uncertainty and confusion regarding their exam results following the decision of the tribunal court of administration of Paris.
A recent “no grade detriment” policy ensuring all students passing this semester of their studies was reversed and nullified by the courts.
As students around the world receive examination results of their second semester, differences emerge between countries in how their universities responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and why. Many in the United Kingdom, including the University of Cambridge, employed a “no detriment” policy.
A “no grade detriment policy” ensured that a students’ overall grade point average (GPA) would not be lower than previous semesters. Examiners would take into consideration the student’s previous grades in respect of their current assignments and exams and cater to assumed difficulties faced by them as a result of the pandemic.
French students in any field at university level are graded on a scale out of 20, with a passing grade being “10/20” and a grade of “17/20” (especially at higher ranked universities) being virtually unheard of.
Although measures varied across the country, students of the historical “Sorbonne” university were told that any grade below “10/20” would be neutralised. This would have, in effect, prevented students from failing their year and ensured that they would not be disadvantaged or prevented from obtaining their degree due to their particular circumstances.
The core of this decision stemmed from a call by the UNEF (Union Nationale des Étudiants de France – the National French Students’ Union) and the CFVU (Commission de la Formation et de la Vie Universitaire). A commission of students, student representatives, lecturers and researchers deliberated to resolve the issue of guaranteeing that no student would be disadvantaged by their new circumstances while maintaining academic integrity.
This discrepancy between equality for all students and the maintenance of academic integrity is the reason for the division seen in the university and amongst students on this issue. Sitting President of Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Georges Haddad and the principal of the Sorbonne School of Law, François-Guy Trébulle have stood in opposition of many of the students and faculties advocating for this policy.
Frédérique Vidal, Minister for Higher Education is quoted as having said that the “deliberations of the CFVU negates the rigorous evaluation of students’ knowledge in the contexts of examinations”, and that the current framework “has a direct effect on the value of the degrees delivered by the university and, in doing so, on the future of students who hope to preserve the value of their education”.
Others opposing the decision of the CFV have stated that “Fundamentally, it is illegal. If lecturers install an automatic average, the student’s work is not correctly evaluated”, and that “pragmatically, it contributes to the degradation of a degree’s quality”. It has also been noted that such a measure would effectively negate the need for repeats from the 1st semester and allow students who would have failed otherwise to pass the year.
Those in favour have quoted the figure of students owning personal IT equipment as being 73% and aim to prevent any form of inequality. Coupled with the 40% who have reported “not to estimate their ability to do timed exams at long distances”. The central reason, according to the UNEF, is to “avoid mass failings” across the university for their second semester and overall year.
Divisions along those lines ran ramped across every sector of the university. Although many have classified the situation as a partisan issue with those on the right opposing the measure for reasons of merit and appreciation of work and opposing equality of opportunity and the left supporting it for reasons of egalitarianism and equality of outcome, it’s proven to be split in a bipartisan way.
On the 5th of May, the decision to implement the policy came at 19 votes in favour, 14 opposing and 4 absences.
An appeal was made by lecturers and researchers to the tribunal court of administration of Paris, backed by the support of the Minister for Higher Education, the Principal of the School of Law of the Sorbonne and the President of the University.
On behalf of the CFVU on the 29th of May, The Fédé of Paris 1 (Fédération des Associations de l’Université Paris 1 – The Federation Association of Paris 1) submitted their defences for the policy. They contended that the provisions of the policy are within the boundaries of an Order of March 27th 2020 in that it facilitates the replacement of examination by means of assignments and homework. Furthermore, it would not have been possible to implement online exams that would suit all candidates in a synchronised timeframe and ensure that academic fraud or identity theft under Article D. 611-2 of the Code of Education would be prevented.
The applicants, composed of the Chief Education officer of the academic region of Île-de-France, the Chief Education Officer of the Academy of Paris, and the Chancellor of the Universities of Paris submitted their appeal on the grounds that the deliberations of the CFVU were in violation of Article 3 section 2 of the Order n°2020-351 of March 27th 2020 which details the process of negating the rules of examinations and evaluations of the academic year of 2019/2020. They also contended that the university did not guarantee to give students their degrees unconditionally. Degrees, diplomas, and masters were granted on the completion and passing of semesters, which the university offers.
On June 5th 2020, the judgments founds for the applicants and the policy of the CFVU was struck down. The CFVU were found to be exceeding their powers as an administrative body, “in violation de the law et and an excess of power”, one judge ruled.
Article 7 of the CFVU’s document saying that “in response to the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne will equally adopt exceptional measures”, was found to be too absolutist and ignored the individuality of each student, infringing on the principle of equality.
But as Majdi Chaarana, Vice-President of the UNEF, put it after their initial victory on the 5th of May, “It’s a first victory for the body, but we must remain prudent as their will probably be other decisions”. In response to President Georges Haddad and other professors obtaining the support of the Minister for Higher Education for appeals to the Conseil d’État (Supreme Court of Administration), this decision is likely to be appealed again.
Questions arise regarding the necessity of this action at this time, but guidelines could be laid out as to how faculties of higher education ought to adapt in exceptional situations like the COVID-19 pandemic. As the first instance of such a policy being brought to a higher court, answers are sought as to how we can reconcile conflicting needs and solutions proposed from opposing sides.