July 04, 2010

"Grandes Ecoles" in France - Facing the threat of Social Engineering in Education?

Sarkozy addressing students at Columbia University earlier this year in NYC had the following to say about US higher education "...we admire your university system....equality is not uniformity, it is tailored to the needs of each and everyone...France has to open it's universities to creativity...". He seems to be following up on that stance in the light of current developments in France proposing reforms in its higher education system, specifically its push to diversify the predominantly white "grandes ecoles" which have, for generations, sent forth numerous luminaries in various academic and non academic fields.

The "grandes ecoles", that number about 215 across the country, admit only a few hundred students each year from all over Europe and from other English speaking countries across the world. Of these 200 + institutes, there are a handful of them at the top which are considered the creme de la creme in the group, not very different from our Ivy League Schools in the USA. The "grand ecoles" recruit the top students around the country and internationally every year. However, for those students that don't get recruited, they have to take a two year preparatory course, Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Ecoles (CPGE), which culminates in a highly competitive nationwide exam which determines whether a student secures admission to one of the "grand ecoles". In France, "families celebrate acceptance at a "grand ecole more than graduation itself." How different is that from a high school student in the US trying to get into an Ivy League Institute like Princeton or Harvard?

Apparently, being a graduate from one of the "grand ecoles' ensures a life time of opportunities, alongside of lucrative and meaningful employment. The Government of France is now asking these elite institutes to bring in under privileged students who cannot overcome the hurdle of the current entrance exam, which apparently is not geared to the economically and culturally disadvantaged status of the immigrant population. The "grand ecoles" meanwhile, are worried that this 'social engineering' thrust on them may 'dilute' the quality of a "grand ecole" education, something that has been prized by the French for centuries. The government, regardless, is determined to provide an equal opportunity environment at their institutes of higher education including the "grand ecoles".

Why is the French government prodding the "grand ecoles" to make this move? Given that it is a political move, there could be no altruistic agenda for sure. It could perhaps be the realization by the ruling party heads that diversity can no longer be ignored. They fear that a disgruntled immigrant minority with strong feelings of being marginalized may prove a serious threat in France. The riots of 2005 previewed what could be in store if the issue of separatism were not addressed in matters of education and health. The USA is still battling to work out a fair and relevant way to address this, and the passing of the "Dream Act", if it happens that is, may be a major breakthrough in the impasse called the US Immigration Reform Bill, a legislation that has hung ominously over US decision makers in the senate and the congress for the last so many years.

France's proposal to revamp the admission process to the "grand ecoles" seems like a double edged sword; quality is pitched against equal opportunity. The promise of a quality education must stand, as must the right for equal opportunity. How does one strike a balance there without compromising at either end? Why should one have to make a choice?


Georg said...

Bonjour Id,

Very interesting, seen from the outside. Just one point: there may be 215 universities in France, but certainly not 215 Grandes Ecoles.

This being football time: good luck with backing Spain. As to me, I am hopeful for Germany.

This tournament shows once again an important point: star system against team work. France was bailed out early because they have nearly nothing else but football celebs who want to stay in the limelight, individually. The trainer tried to create a fighting team out of these Nike and CocaCola stars and failed.

Our team, the German one, is first and foremost a group of 11 fighting together. There are no publicity stars though some are well known and appreciated, like Klose and Schweinsteiger.

As to the Spanish, I don't know to which group they belong. The game today or tomorrow will show.

Three Cheers to you

Id it is said...

The German team with the likes of Kloser, Schweinstriger, and Muller looks very good, and they are playing as 'a team' which many of the other qualifying teams clearly did not, and paid a price for that. However, I feel Spain with its impeccable passing and collaborative building-up-to-a- goal tactic may pay off this time : ) ....tomorrow will tell. Good luck to both our teams.

Thanks for that feed back on the number of Grand Ecoles, but both the NYT and The Telegraph quote the number that I used in the post (which did sound unlikely to me when I first read it)...." While France's 220 grandes écoles remain largely the protected preserve of the haute bourgeoisie and ruling classes, its free-for-all universities have gradually slipped down world rankings and have a 25 per cent drop-out rate." The Telegraph
Look forward to hearing more from you on this...

crumbs said...


I guess this question (of equal opportunities vs quality) is a fairly universal concern. In India, we had similar debates (or rather more heated ones) when the govt decided to extend reservation for the backward castes in institutions higher education too. Premier institutes like the Indian Institute of Technology, were up in arms, saying this will dilute the quality.
I feel the problem is also with our notion of "quality"--in that to get admitted into these elite sort of places, there are a certain pre-requisits that one is expected to fulfill, and these are very rarely just academic. As you pointed out, they very rarely take into account differences in culture and background. Which means we have a circle of only a certain kind of people getting into these institutes, and then the same kind of people deciding who gets to follow them. Which means that once you are disadvantaaged, you remain in that position.
I guess, that is what all these policy changes are at least theoretically trying to change. We cannot separate politics from policy, but then, the re-examining of parameters cannot be done with a policy change.
A rather long comment to your post, and I am not even sure I made my point clear! Ah well!

Id it is said...

In fact, you made the point rather well... "only a certain kind of people getting into these institutes, and then the same kind of people deciding who gets to follow them... once you are disadvantaged, you remain in that position...these policy changes are at least theoretically trying to change"
We have to first accept that a problem exists in a system for us to then try and fix/improve upon it. I guess France, India, USA , and other countries have begun to sense that a problem exists within these elite institutes of learning preventing them from being accessible to all, and so, as you rightly suggest,the parameters need to be revisited, and this will only get done if there is a proposal for a policy change. That is exactly what is happening in France right now, and one hopes hat something good and fair will come out of it.

Georg said...

Hallo Id,

After looking and googling I think you are right: there are about 215 Grandes Ecoles. I went to the "Conférence des Grandes Ecoles" and I suppose these people know all about it.

The GE have this in particular that one needs two years to prepare for admission plus an entry examination. So if they want to open these schools to non-bourgeois, they must give them scholarships. The French Ivy League.

These people are running the country because they mainly squat in the civil service and the companies owned by the State.

No doubt about it: these people are bright but they are not trained to be inventive or to sponsor something new.

The GE don't do any research. They leave this to the less well endowed universities and research organizations.

The best known GE is the ENA, the National School of Administration.
95 percent of Government or opposition have passed this school. Therefore some people call them the clones, because they are so much alike.


lakeviewer said...

Interesting! France appears to want more egalitarianism. Will look for it! In America, the courts have eliminated affirmative action, pushing back any progress we have made in encouraging minorities to pursue careers not usually available to them.

EYE said...

very intersting post. I am currently working at a grand ecole and I get to see a face each part of the world. As the NY times article mentions the idea of "a country of “republican virtue,” a meritocracy run by a well-trained elite that emerges from a fiercely competitive educational system."
and that obviously means getting the best from all over the world and being able to provide them with the best educational facilities.

This is obviously a political move from the marginalized sections of this society.

As for as assurance of a job is concerned in France, it is difficult to tell whether all the pass outs from a grande ecole really hold top jobs for life, considering that unemployement is rampant and a steady job is something that only a handful of people are assured of in France.

Smorg said...

Hiya Id,
Interesting post (as usual)! Being of Asian descent I was quite opposed to affirmative action when I started college (I got accepted to a private Jesuit college via having good junior college grades and so wasn't keen on the idea of others not having to work as hard to get in just because they can get in by racial quota).

I'm not so opposed to it now, though, since AA only gets you in but it won't keep you in if you don't keep up with the academic rigor the college demands... So the quality isn't really compromised.

On another note, congrats, Georg! The Germans did very well at the World Cup, I think. :oD

Greetings to all from cloudy Southern California,
Smorgy :o)

Id it is said...

Grand Ecoles rejected famous philosopher Derrida thrice..."In America, Derrida,the famous philosopher, who died in 2004, left as big a mark on humanities departments as any single thinker of the past forty years—according to a recent survey, only works by Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu are cited more often. But in France, the gatekeepers of higher learning, of the Ecoles, regarded him with ambivalence and, to his devastation, kept him at arm’s length for much of his career. According to a new biography by Benoît Peeters, Derrida, a French Jew from Algiers ill-prepared for the intellectual grind and noxious food of Parisian student life, may even have “contemplated” suicide after his first attempt to get into the École Normale. He finally gained admission on his third try, despite a disastrous performance in his orals." http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/mar/25/derrida-excluded-favorite/#.UVcCT1gvK8U.twitter