“Elite” universities have been warned that they could be targeted by politicians seeking to quell public anger about inequality after France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, proposed abolishing an ultra-exclusive civil service training institute that he himself attended.
Moving to shut the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), seen by critics as an unrepresentative stronghold of privilege that furnishes France with much of its political and business elite, has been described by commentators as an attempt by Mr Macron to dampen anger stirred up by “yellow vest” protesters, whose demonstrations have shaken the country.
“Elite universities will increasingly find themselves caught in the crossfire of populist politics,” said Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter. “They are easy targets as politicians try to claim the moral high ground in debates about social mobility.”
There are as yet few details about Mr Macron’s plans, only excerpts from the leaked text of a speech in which he says he wants to abolish ENA and “other organisations” to make the civil service more meritocratic and representative of French society. Delivery of the speech was reportedly cancelled in the wake of the fire at Notre-Dame cathedral.
“It seems like it’s going to be a significant move, but the devil will be in the detail,” said Julien Grenet, an expert on university admissions at the Paris School of Economics. One idea floated in the French media is to merge ENA with a similar training institute for judges, he said. A spokeswoman for ENA said the institution was not commenting on the reports.
It is “very common” for French politicians to suggest scrapping ENA – which had been the subject of repeated “inconclusive” reform attempts, including a partial move to Strasbourg – but this was the first time that a sitting president had “seriously” considered such a move, Professor Grenet said.
The complaints against ENA are myriad: most of its students come from the highest social strata, about half are from the Paris region and, although the proportion varies, significantly less than half of its students are female, Professor Grenet said. With many ENA graduates entering France’s bureaucracy, this leads to a civil service seen as “disconnected from the rest of society”.
ENA entrance exams are seen as “socially biased”, he explained, leaning heavily on the humanities and involving a grilling in front of a selection panel that advantages students who have gained a wide knowledge of “general culture” in more privileged households. There are a “lot of similarities” with the interview process at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Professor Grenet said.
Few commentators believe that scrapping ENA will do much to solve wider inequalities in the country’s education system or in society more generally, however. In French politics, it is “routine” to single out an institution and “publicly guillotine” it to “calm” public opinion “without touching the invisible power mechanisms that keep operating underneath”, said Juliette Torabian, a higher education researcher.
For example, she explained, only high schools with wealthy students tended to organise preparatory courses for entry into grandes écoles – such as ENA – which are far more selective and prestigious than the country’s universities. Mr Macron is still not “questioning the very conception of grandes écoles” or their role in “hindering social mobility and reproducing elites”, she argued.
Even so, observers believe that “elite” universities could come under increasing political pressure.
“One can imagine, given the global political and ideological context (see the election of Trump, Bolsonaro, populist governments in Europe and so on), that attacks against elite schools could increase,” said Pierre Clement, a lecturer in educational sociology at the University of Rouen Normandie. Such assaults could come from “populist” politicians themselves or from rivals trying to pre-empt them, he said.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who has repeatedly called for an end to tax deductibility for large university endowments, argued that in the US, Ivy League institutions “unofficially” serve the same role as France’s grandes écoles.
The “elimination” of the grandes écoles would be a “good start” in ending the power of an “unelected, but self-perpetuating and largely unaccountable” managerial class, he said. “Other nations should follow suit,” he added.
But Professor Grenet sees attacks on institutions such as ENA as a “cheap” and “symbolic” way for politicians to “please the masses” without actually doing the hard work of redistributing wealth, for example, through the tax system.
“Of course highly selective universities could be far more radical in opening up their doors to young people from all backgrounds,” added Professor Elliot Major, former head of the Sutton Trust, a UK social mobility foundation. “But the central reason that student intakes are so skewed towards the privileged classes is the extreme inequalities in society that shape life prospects long before academe,” he said.