French at Odds Over Putting Poor Into Top Schools

Angela Charlton, Comcast News, January 6, 2010

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Government ministers, intellectuals and activists clashed this week over whether to set quotas to ensure more low-income students can attend a handful of “grandes ecoles,” university-level institutions seen as the country’s premier path to prosperity and power.

The government, pressed to ease social tensions and persistent class divides in a country whose motto includes the word “equality,” proposed that the schools give 30 percent of spots to students on financial aid.

The body that oversees the publicly funded schools, the Conference des grandes ecoles, shot the plan down. Quotas, they said, would dumb the system down, threatening its whole raison d’etre by crippling the competitiveness of top French schools and their graduates in the international marketplace.

“Do you think we could improve the level of our world champion handball team if we required that there were a certain percentage of people with a particular characteristic? The answer is no, of course,” wrote the conference’s president, Pierre Tapie.

Education Minister Luc Chatel said he was “shocked” by the schools’ rejection of quotas and said he was determined to see the measure through. He said the current system “produces only social inequality.”

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About 6 percent of post-secondary students go to France’s 220 grandes ecoles, which include the HEC business school and the Ecole Polytechnique engineering school. The system was born in 1747 to train top engineers, and today access is meant to be based purely on merit.

Yet passing the demanding entrance exams require years of preparation and knowledge of the French education system that students from working class or immigrant families often lack.

At the grandes ecoles, the student body is “very, very white” and many students already know each other before they are admitted, said Arnaud Riegert, who tutors high school students from disadvantaged neighborhoods. His pupils include white, Arab and black youth from around the country trying to get into top universities.

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But he says quotas are not the answer. He says the tough exams and admission process are the biggest problem, and that the grandes ecoles should reach out beyond the handful of prep schools that traditionally provide most recruits.

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President Nicolas Sarkozy, who did not attend a “grande ecole” himself and is the son of a Hungarian immigrant, has encouraged more diversity in top political levels.

But quotas make many in France bristle.

The FIDL, a federation of high school student unions, said Wednesday that quotas would “cast suspicion on graduates of the top schools who come from poor neighborhoods, as soon as one could imagine that they were recruited because of their social origin and not their abilities.”

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