French Elite Schools Under Fire

French elite schools under fire

January 6, 2010

PARIS—-France's elite schools faced fierce attacks on Wednesday for balking at a government plan that would force them to take in more students from low-income families and minorities.

President Nicolas Sarkozy wants the higher education institutes, known as the “grandes ecoles”, to set aside 30 percent of new admissions for poor students, many of whom are from immigrant backgrounds.

The plan to open up the grandes ecoles is a key plank of Sarkozy's push for equal opportunity, but their top representative body, the CGE, has expressed reservations over the measures set to go into effect in 2012.

The 30-percent target would “inevitably lead to a drop in the academic level,” said the CGE, calling it a form of “admissions quota” that flew in the face of France's cherished egalitarianism.

The government reacted quickly, with Education Minister Luc Chatel saying he found “shocking” the suggestion that more poor students would lower the academic level of the schools, which produce a tight-knit group of leaders in politics, industry and the professions.

Self-made billionaire businessman Francois Pinault made a rare foray into a public debate on Wednesday, writing in Le Monde newspaper that the schools' reluctance to open up was “nauseating.”

“How can someone in a modern society be so reactionary?” wrote Pinault in the column co-signed by renowned political adviser Alain Minc.

“Those who quietly signed this statement underestimate the rumblings coming from deep within society. They fail to measure the urgency or the priorities of the day,” said Pinault, founder of the French international fashion house PPR.

Over the past decade, many of the French elite schools have opened up to diversity, starting with the Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences-Po as it is known.

Sciences-Po, which counts among its alumni Sarkozy, his predecessor Jacques Chirac and a host of top company executives, has been taking in students from the high-immigrant suburbs since 2001.

But the same openness has not been applied across the board, according to the education ministry.

Nearly 23 percent of students at engineering schools are scholarship recipients, but that figure drops to just 11 percent at the Polytechnique, which produces the cream of France's engineers.

The same situation prevails in very selective business schools such as the Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC), where fewer than 15 percent of students are from low-income families.

Richard Descoings, the director of Sciences-Po, said the 30-percent target had to be applied to all elite schools to avoid creating fortresses of privilege.

“A handful of very selective schools are training a handful of students, who often excel at what they do, but who are becoming more and more closed off from French society, and this is serious,” said Descoings.

Sarkozy announced in late 2008 a plan to set aside 30 percent of places in so-called preparatory classes for entrance exams into the elite schools for poor students.

That goal was reached in September 2009, but the government now wants the top schools to go one step further and set aside 30 percent of first-year places to scholarship students.

France is home to one of Europe's biggest Arab and black minorities, but is overwhelmingly ruled by a white establishment while unemployment is at its highest in immigrant suburbs.


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