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?