Equality, but not for poor

January 30, 1998

TWO independent reports in the past year have cast grave doubts on the fairness of the French higher education system.

Such accusations strike at the very heart of the French constitution. Equality is an almost fanatical concern of the French, embodied in the famous phrase "liberte, egalite, fraternite". It is a consensus view that everyone should have equal opportunities, regardless of the conditions into which they are born, and the law is supposed to guarantee equal treatment to all citizens.

Education plays a major role in achieving equality. The republic is seen as a meritocracy, where one is judged by performance in a very competitive education system. Success will guarantee you a good position in society and people will easily accept leaders who are much younger and less competent than themselves just because they have a better diploma.

To continue to be acceptable, this system needs to be perceived as fair. This perception rests on two assumptions: that equal opportunities in education are offered to the rich and to the poor, and that equal achievements in education will lead to equal career opportunities.

Both these assumptions have been challenged, and no minister of education, especially in a socialist government, can afford to let such challenges go unheeded, least of all a man with the strong convictions and political clout of Claude Allegre.

The first report was written for Mr Allegre's predecessor in the Juppe government. It is seven pages long and consists simply of an overview of the financial support given to individual students from public funds. There would hardly seem to be anything sensational about such figures. The catch is that the support comes from various sources: scholarships are handled by the ministry of education, welfare and health by the ministry for social affairs. There are tax reductions for families supporting students that go through the treasury and rent allowances to students from the ministry of housing. None of this benefits students globally, such as building student residences or keeping tuition fees nominal.

The author of the report puts the total of this individualised aid to students at FFr25 billion (Pounds 2.5 billion) in 1995, and about FFr billion in 1996. Two-thirds is paid to students, the rest is in the form of tax breaks for their families.

These figures equal three times the amount of money allotted for the day-to-day functioning and maintenance of the whole university system (salaries excepted) and represents about FFr13,500 per student. This is a lot of money to hand over to young people for the privilege of getting an education, especially as tuition fees are very low, about FFr600 per year, and it is not clear that it would not be better spent in improving the working conditions in universities.

The report's author, however, makes an even more telling point: the system is strongly biased in favour of the well-to-do. A family with three children, for instance, one of whom is a student, will get overall support of FFr47,000 if its earnings are more than FFr800,000 per year, and only FFr13,000 if its earnings are less than FFr40,000. This is because most of the benefits do not depend on how much the family earns while the tax breaks favour the rich. The children of the well-to-do make up for one-third of the students, although they represent only one-fifth of their generation, and this inequality becomes more pronounced as one rises in the education hierarchy.

On the other hand, studies have shown that poorer students still suffer from bad working conditions and often work part-time to support themselves.

The report's impact was somewhat lost in the 1997 election campaign. But in the summer another blow was struck to the myth of equality in education. Two scholars published the results of a statistical study comparing the correlation between the social origin of individuals and their level of education in 1970 and 1993. The significance of such a study is to check whether there has been progress towards levelling out chances at birth, that is, diminishing these correlations.

Not so: in 1993, as in 1970, scions of the upper classes stood a 65 per cent greater chance of getting a higher diploma than someone of more modest birth, and a 25 per cent chance of coming out even; they lost out in only one case in ten.

The persistence of inequality has to be seen in the context of a tremendous expansion of education, and particularly of higher education, at enormous cost. Among children born between 1934 and 1938, only 10 per cent completed high school, but this proportion reached 35 per cent for children born between 1964 and 1968. The level of education of children today is considerably higher than that of their parents, and they are spending much longer in school or college.

Access has been democratised, but this has not led to a reduction in inequality. This is bound to cause a lot of frustration. Before the war, lack of achievement by the poor in the education system carried no stigma, since they did not enter it in the first place. Nowadays, it is seen as the result of fair competition where they have failed. Even when they succeed, they find out that victory is empty as people with better diplomas get ahead of them. As the general level of education increases, they find themselves in the same position as their parents although they have invested much more time and effort in education.

It is a clear-cut case of running as hard as one can just to stay in the same place. Parents are paying a very high price to learn the extent to which diplomas have been devalued. For there is another, more insidious, fact: the importance of social origin increases as one gets older and advances in one's career. The correlation between one's degree and the job one holds at the end of one's working life is almost twice as strong as the correlation between one's degree and one's first job. It seems that other factors are at work here which education is unable to correct or supplement: some kind of family capital (material or intellectual) that is specific to some position in society, and that ties down members of that family to that position, unless they are willing to incur large transaction costs.

So the French education system may not be as egalitarian as public rhetoric claims: it apparently subsidises the rich at the expense of the poor, nor does it seem to have improved the opportunities of the poor, unless one holds the view that holding inequalities pegged over 30 years is good enough. The government had to fight a tough political battle recently to relate child allowances to family resources. It will be interesting to see how Mr Allegre tackles the problem.

Ivar Ekeland lectures at the Ceremade et Institut de Finance, Universite Paris-Dauphine.

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