Quota plan for France’s top schools ignites a heated clash
PARIS - France is facing a dilemma: Should the government force its most prestigious schools, those that produce presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs, to be less elitist about the students they let in?
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 the spots to students on financial aid.
The body that oversees the publicly funded schools shot the plan down. Quotas, they said, would dumb down the system, threatening its 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.’’
Connections made at France’s premier universities are key to landing jobs, including at the highest levels of French politics and business, and prove fruitful throughout careers.
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 requires years of preparation and a 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 one another before they are admitted, said Arnaud Riegert, who tutors high school students from disadvantaged neighborhoods.