Glittering grades do not guarantee greatness

August 27, 2004

The French admissions system has advantages but, as in the UK, says Ruth Morse, it nurtures arrogance among the elite.

Every year towards the end of the silly season, newspapers, in a moment of seriousness, get outraged at university admissions, particularly Oxbridge admissions.

It has always been hard to predict how much success at one task will guarantee success at another. No one would imagine that top results in science subjects are likely to give a measure of who will be a humane doctor in six years' time. Even if they did, so many students have wonderful grades that it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between them on exam results alone. At the same time, however, they are being encouraged to think that glittering A levels give them a right not just to a university place, but one at the university of their choice.

By contrast, in France there are two distinct systems. Despite insistence on a level playing field, there is a competitive elite system, for which good schools and home advantages are necessary. Even admission to the great lycées , such as Henri IV or Louis Le Grand in Paris, will not guarantee that students remain there, especially not after the baccalauréat , which debouches into the two years that prepare candidates for the entrance exams to the various grandes êcoles . The term "savage" underrates the pressure: the préparation years for mathematicians are called "jail". At the end of the first year, teachers assess students and ask those whose chances they think are poor to go elsewhere. The Government invests twice as much money per student in the classes préparatoires than in the first or second year of university. In addition, the students in " prépa " are entitled to be accredited a year's university study for each of their two years (although general school courses do not correspond to the specifics of a degree). The grandes êcoles have written entrance examinations, followed - for those who pass - by an oral. At each stage candidates are ranked. The expectation is that most students will fail, and will then join the hundreds of thousands enrolled directly at universities. They are thus entitled to begin their university course in the second or third year.

The bac entitles students to a university place, but not necessarily at the university of their choice. Admissions are done by numbers, online. Paris is divided like a pie chart, and choice of which part of Paris University to attend is to a certain extent determined by where the student lives, especially if their subject is in the humanities.

We never see students before they arrive. We are allowed to insist that would-be students achieve a certain standard in English, because if they do not have some ability to read, write and speak English they will fail the course, which includes the study of the language, literatures and civilisations of the English-speaking world, as well as skills of expression. Entitlement goes no further than the right to try to pass - in France, more than half the students who start a university course leave in the first few months.

In the spectrum that runs from mass to selective admissions, France has opted for tiny numbers and homogeneous preparation at the top. The education ministry pays the fees for many courses, as well as giving lucky recruits a salary as apprentice teachers who will repay their privileges in government service for some years after their courses end. Foreign students admitted to the grandes êcoles pay their own way.

The deliberate social choice of reproducing a small elite manufactures attitudes to entitlement of its own: to the best jobs, to preferential pay, to fast-track promotions. This creates another spectrum: the one that runs from confidence to arrogance. It seems impossible to impress on elite students in any country the brute fact that there are at least two good candidates for each place, that luck plays its part in their successes, and that arbitrary factors are often as influential as their achievements in putting them where they are. But that is never the story in August.

Ruth Morse is professeur des universites at Universite Paris VII.

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