Égalité and higher fees: French lessons for the English revolution

Sciences Po shows that massive tuition-fee rises can be used to underwrite efforts to widen participation, Peter Gumbel writes

April 28, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman

With the controversy in the UK over rising student tuition fees showing little sign of abating, the academic community here in France is sitting up and taking notice. On this side of the Channel, the increases are prompting a range of reactions, from fear to scorn to envy - and in some cases, a strong feeling of déjà vu.

The sort of angry reaction seen in the UK to the fee increases, including sometimes violent student demonstrations, are all too familiar here. French governments have learned from bitter experience over the years that higher education can be a politically explosive issue. The country's universities are under growing pressure to find new sources of funding that will wean them off the national treasury, but most still charge only token fees.

Yet at the top end of the spectrum, at the most selective grandes écoles and other highly rated higher education establishments that do charge tuition, fees have been rising rapidly, prompting a furious debate that has some clear parallels with the one taking place in the UK. It is a debate about the risk of cutting off access to higher education for students from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds.

The good news from France is that tuition-fee increases don't necessarily lead to a drop in the number of students from less than affluent homes. In fact, the opposite can be true: by recycling a part of the higher fees to fund bursaries, those who have tried have found it possible to increase the proportion of students from deprived backgrounds, sometimes by a significant degree.

A prime example is to be found at my own institution, Sciences Po, the social sciences university in Paris that has long been the training ground for the national elite. Over the past decade, the institution has raised its tuition fees almost ninefold, from a maximum of €1,050 in 2003 to €8,900 (£7,800) in the current academic year - close to the new top UK rate that will come into force in 2012-13. Increases of this magnitude don't come smoothly: fees tripled in 2004 and jumped by another 60 per cent in 2009.

Yet at the same time Sciences Po has managed to bring in a substantially larger number of financially deprived students. Its director, Richard Descoings, made the critical first move in 2001, when he deemed that the student body needed to become more socially and geographically diverse, and that the way to achieve this goal was by breaking down the barriers to admission. That decision led to a series of agreements with schools in deprived areas to admit their best students on different terms - and on full scholarships.

It was a hugely controversial move at the time, and there are still many critics in France who warn about the risk of declining standards, or contend that the students admitted via such initiatives won't have the skills needed to keep up. In fact, these students now constitute about 9 per cent of the total number of undergraduates at Sciences Po, and the vast majority have thrived.

Descoings' second move was the push to subsidise a much larger proportion of students overall, not just those on the special admissions scheme, by using a proportion of the institution's higher fees to fund bursaries. Its impact has been dramatic: the proportion of European students at Sciences Po who receive bursaries has doubled since 2005 and now accounts for 26 per cent of the total student body. Descoings' goal is to reach 30 per cent.

Such moves have put enormous pressure on France's grandes écoles to follow suit. President Nicolas Sarkozy himself has urged them to aim for a 30 per cent bursary rate. Some of these elite graduate schools already charge fees that exceed the top range of the new UK scale - at the business school HEC Paris, for example, tuition costs EUR13,200 a year - and many of them have admissions policies as restrictive as Sciences Po's used to be. They have been grumbling publicly that they don't believe in quotas, and have been publicly admonished for doing so. Valerie Pecresse, the minister for higher education and research, complains that by not taking action to increase the scholarship rate, "France is depriving itself and its future of an incalculable number of its talented youngsters."

As she piles pressure on the grandes écoles, Pecresse has also been pushing the mass of public universities to become more efficient and financially responsible. That's where the fear and envy of the UK reforms come in: in private, some university presidents talk jealously about the independence from the state that higher fees could bring. But in a country that vaunts the meritocratic ideals of its education system, it's going to take a courageous - and perhaps foolhardy - government to try a UK-style fee rise for all.

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