France urged to expand university places after equality warning

Analysts say generous grantsmore housing and better information are needed to fix inequalities driven by parental income 

十二月 20, 2021
Hot air ballons being inflated to illustrate France urged to expand university places after equality warning
Source: Alamy

Economists have urged France to create tens of thousands of additional university places after research indicated that access to higher education in the country was as unequal as in the US, despite negligible tuition fees in the Gallic system.

On a 10-section scale of parental income, moving up one section increases the proportion of young people entering higher education in France by 5.7 percentage points, compared with 6.7 percentage points in the US, according to a study published by France’s independent Economic Analysis Council (CAE). 

“We thought inequalities had to be smaller because there are fewer income inequalities at the beginning: the American system has a lot of very high tuition fees,” said Sébastien Grobon, a PhD student at Sorbonne University and one of the authors of the study.

“It means that free higher education might be a condition for equality, but it’s not sufficient. It’s still costly because people have to pay for their living, and good universities are in big cities where the cost of living can be really substantial,” said the study’s other author, Cécile Bonneau, a PhD student at the Paris School of Economics

The phenomenon means that, taking into account public spending on higher education, grants to students, family allowances and tax deductions, the French state spends one-and-a-half times more on those whose parents are in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution than on those in the bottom 20 per cent, the study found. 

The issue of understanding and improving access for students from poorer backgrounds was considered in another CAE paper, also published on 1 December, which considers equality and efficiency across the French higher education system.

Gabrielle Fack, professor of economics at Paris Dauphine University and an author of the second study, highlighted the role of tracking in school examination streams and the cost of living.

“There is some self-selection and lack of information that changes the aspiration or makes the aspiration of low-income students and higher-income students quite different quite early in the process,” she added.

Professor Fack said three recommendations from her study could help address the issue: increasing the value of means-tested student grants by €1,000 (£852) per year and making them available to 66 per cent of families; providing more student housing; and increasing the number of course places available by 150,000.  

The Macron government has tried to fix income-related inequality by shrinking class sizes in deprived areas, something that may help but will take many years to show, said Professor Fack. Another measure, using quotas of needs-based scholarship students per programme, is based on applications to a course, rather than the total number of such students, Ms Bonneau said.

“The problem is that the low-income, disadvantaged students, they do not even apply to selective programmes”, said Ms Bonneau. “It hasn’t really changed the segregation in terms of social background, geographic origin and gender.” 

Despite the moral and economic cases, none of the analysts was convinced that the issue would figure prominently in France’s election next year. “There should be some investment in this particular group because it’s very important for the future”, said Professor Fack, referring to aspiring students from low-income backgrounds. “However, I am not super-optimistic on whether this is going to be in the debate.”



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