Why private higher education is a complicated and opaque sector

To help families see things more clearly: this was the goal stated by the minister of higher education, Sylvie Retailleau, announcing at the beginning of the 2023 school year the creation of a new label dedicated to private higher education. And for good reason: opaque, poorly controlled and completely unreadable for families, it has become the site of numerous abuses. What does this scrub look like and how do you get on with it? The first episode of this series, in three parts.

Twelve thousand euros and two wasted years… Mona*, 26 years old, does not lose her temper. This 26-year-old student, who is now studying English at university, believes she was “deceived”. Three years ago, after graduation, the young girl came across a video on Instagram by Lisa Mode Paris, a school of the Galileo Global Education group, which praised the merits of her master’s degree in fashion and luxury management.

“We saw pictures of students, the workshops they worked in, their creations, fashion shows and exhibitions organized on campus, logos of partner companies, such as Louis Vuitton, Hermès or agnès b. It was great,” she recalls.

A complicated and opaque sector

On the website, the France Competences and Qualiopi buttons seem to confirm the seriousness of the training. First of all, it was about work and learning, so 100% financed by the company that would agree to sign the apprenticeship contract. This meant that her parents did not have to pay anything and that the young girl was entitled to compensation of slightly more than 900 euros for her part-time work. The icing on the cake, she thought, was that the school agreed to accept her with no experience, simply on the record. “On paper, everything was optimal. I should have known there was a wolf,” she said.

The “wolf”, Mona, discovered this over the course of months: by having to look for an apprenticeship contract herself, which she failed due to her lack of experience in the fashion world, by having to pay the 6,000 euro school fee twice due to the lack of an apprenticeship contract, by finding his courses – simple PDFs sent to his mailbox – on websites, not having answers to his questions, etc.

My training did not lead to a “master’s degree”, but to a “master’s degree”, with no academic value.Mona

“Nothing went right”, summarizes the young girl who had to get a job as a saleswoman in order to finance “this circus”. The worst thing for her, she says, was when she realized that this education does not lead to a “master’s degree” recognized by the state, but to a “master’s degree” without academic value. “That meant I had no equivalent in the university system. That I worked – and paid – all for nothing,” she sighs.

Thomas Bucaille, director of this school, who joined the Galileo Global Education group in 2013, does not see a problem. “We are very clear and precise. We offer work-study master’s degrees, which allow you to gain extensive experience in brand creation or fashion and luxury management,” he explains to us via email. In fact, at no point in the announcement is the school “master” or “master” mentioned.

Except that for families, that shade is subtle. Too much, indicates Catherine Becchetti-Bizot, mediator for national education and higher education, in her annual report published on July 19, 2023. She notes in particular the explosion of complaints concerning the private sector (+ 346% from 2017) . And that, she continues, mainly refers to lucrative private higher education.

A sector whose offer has grown significantly in the last ten years, mainly around topics that are popular among young people and cheap to implement, such as management, communication, digital, fashion, design, sports, environment or even health professions. The result: a quarter of students now study at a private institution, compared to 15% in the early 2000s, with the phenomenon accelerating in the past five years.

Jargon that is not readily available

The problem, the mediator notes, is that the market has become completely illegible for families. Many establishments play with words. They associate their “bachelor” with “bac + 3 diplomas”, a term usually associated with a license, the only three-year degree recognized by the Ministry of Higher Education.

For bac + 5 courses, these schools choose homophonic titles: “M1”, “M2”, “master”, “master of science”, “master of business administration” or “MBA”… instead of “master”, the only degree at this level recognized by foreign countries. And therefore offer a guarantee of continued studies. The newest are DBAs or “doctorates in business administration.”

Despite the high-sounding title, “they don’t let you graduate with a doctorate approved by the French state,” warns the head of a management school. “Only a doctorate (PhD), along with admission to a doctoral school, has that power. “Kec! These programs are now proliferating on the pages of the so-called private “grandes écoles”, with the growing bac+8 market in their sights.

Questionable state recognition

To reassure families, some are labeled as “recognised by the state” and refer to the website of France Compétences – an organization dependent on the Ministry of Labor – and the National Directory of Professional Certificates (RNCP), where the training provided is recorded. Everything is presented as a guarantee of the seriousness of the training.

“Except that has nothing to do with it! » exclaims Joachim Pinto, co-founder of the Monsieur Écoles de commerce media and an expert on higher education, who explains: “The RNCP title confirms professional training that provides precise skills, and its quality is essentially measured by the employability of graduates.” It can be useful for those who want to enter the job market very quickly or who want to be competent in certain tasks, but it does not allow them to advance in the professional world as easily as with an initial academic education, a validated bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree or a doctorate. These diplomas remain a reference in the eyes of recruiters. »

Philippe Choquet, who represents a small handful of private institutions of general interest (EESPIG) that meet the same quality requirements as universities and public institutions, also dreams of clearer information. For him, everything is a matter of presentation: “Some young people are not made for long, theoretically oriented studies. Professional, more specific training may be more appropriate. What is problematic is when they are not aware that they have made this choice. »

Even the best informed get lost

Because the first to be harmed, obviously, are the students, but also their parents, who sometimes find themselves in a situation where they pay several thousand euros for a diploma that does not have the expected value. Many come from modest backgrounds, have not completed higher education or are foreigners and are not familiar with the functioning of French higher education. Many also have average academic performance, and sometimes even fail, and are afraid of not being recruited to Parcoursup.

“They allow themselves to be seduced by the discourse of schools that accept them almost without selection, promising them immediate integration into the sector they like, all without paying a cent if they decide to do an apprenticeship. And they believe because the system has become extremely complicated and jargony. Even the best-informed get lost,” observes the head of Ascencia Business School, a small Parisian school not recognized by the Ministry of Higher Education, created 20 years ago before being swallowed up by the Collège de Paris. However, he claims: not all private institutions should be put in the same basket.

This was confirmed by MPs Estelle Folest (MoDem) and Béatrice Descamps (Liot) in a report submitted on Wednesday, April 10, 2024 to the Committee on Cultural Affairs and Education of the National Assembly. First, there are the EESPIG, those private non-profit schools, which fulfill the same teaching and research missions as the public services and are controlled by the High Council for the Evaluation of Research and Development. “But even within the lucrative private sector, the landscape varies greatly,” explains Estelle Folest.

Good training is deserved.Isabelle Laurioz, director of a career guidance consultancy

Thus, within the same group we can find a quality school, targeted by the state, that plays the role of the head of the gondola, such as EM Lyon in Galileo that appears in the 4 best management schools, the Pigier school in Eduservices, the Istituto d’Arte Applicata e Design ( IAAD), the oldest automotive design school in Europe at AD Education, Sup’Biotech at Ionis or Inseec at Omnes… and schools with very high quality are more questionable.

“The diversity found within the schools themselves, able to offer in parallel a diploma recognized by the Ministry of Higher Education and another that simply leads to a master’s degree, registered in the National Directory of Professional Certificates (RNCP). “This does not mean that the training is not good, it is simply professional and therefore not recognized by the Ministry of Higher Education”, specifies Jean-Christophe Chamayou, a certification expert, who urges you to find out carefully before you click.

How to sort? First you need to see how the school treats you, advises Arnaud Sévigné, co-founder of Monsieur Écoles de commerce media and director of the competition preparation institute Hello Prépa. “A school that is too proactive in recruiting and tries to hire you at any cost should not inspire confidence. » Other indicators of quality: the age of the school, the reputation of the principal, the quality of the teaching staff and partnership relations. Finally, you need to look at visas, grades, marks and certificates.

“If the school hasn’t even bothered to get the RNCP title or the Qualiopi certificate, forget about it,” advises Jean-Christophe Chamayou, who helps institutions compile their dossiers. But you have to keep in mind that they are issued by the Ministry of Labor and that they are related to vocational training. Those seeking initial academic training should verify that their training actually leads to a license (or license grade) and master’s degree (or master’s grade), the only guarantees of equality with the LMD system.

But above all, they will have to show their desire to go there. “Good training has to be earned,” explains Isabelle Laurioz, director of a career guidance consultancy. In short, if you have average academic performance, make mistakes in every sentence, and simply copy and paste cover letters onto Parcoursup, you will have less chance of being selected. For meditation before the opening of the complementary entry stage at the Parcoursup, June 11.

* All names have been changed.

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