League of their own

May 17, 1996

University league tables published in The THES this week are a by-and-large way of telling the public which institutions are "best" for what. They are a response to the demand for accountability, the consequent publication of masses of raw data and the polite fiction that more than 100 universities are equal.

In the week of French president Jacques Chirac's state visit to Britain, it is interesting to note how differently the French do these things. An elaborate survey by the French education ministry (page 10) has found that today's student elite has the edge over former generations and concludes that mass education, far from being "incompatible with the production of a high-quality elite", is actually a quality enhancer.

France relies on a tiny tranche of higher education, the grandes ecoles, which cater for a fraction of 1 per cent of the age group, to anchor standards for the whole of higher education. Any effort to rank the French universities is taboo. Furthermore, the ecoles, whose intakes range from a few dozen to a few hundred students, do not depend on research as a criterion of excellence. Set up more than 200 years ago to train cadres for the post-revolutionary state, the system has scarcely budged. Measurements of academic excellence are used to identify, classify and process the academic elite, then place members in the top slots.

The ecoles do not need to worry about performance-linked funding. Their funding is function-linked. They do not make their way up to the top of any league table - they are founded with the specific purpose of being the top. But the system does have its pecking order. As the excellence of the ecoles is assumed, it is the students who have to be measured in tables. These are based on constant, meticulous classification of each student in order of performance from the start of preparatory class, from the lists of successful ecole entrants to the lists of ecole graduates. This listing generates other lists. How many candidates offered places both at Polytechnique and at Ecole Normale Superieure opt for the latter? Minute shifts in the ecoles' prestige are monitored this way. So is the prestige of government departments, which offer places to graduates of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration and wait like shy brides to be chosen, with the graduates getting to choose in strict order of their finals results.

It is a system that is criticised for turning out standardised products, those who respond to a narrowly competitive environment. It also seems to exclude most gifted women students. It is said to be too narrow a gate, producing too few recruits for the establishment. Last year, one of its products, President Chirac, swore to break its monopoly if he were elected. But observers of his entourage in London this week will notice no change.

The rift is growing between the ecoles and the universities, which are open to soaring numbers of baccalaureate-holders and bear the brunt of social expectations and demands. While the universities struggle with problems that regularly send protesting students on to the streets, the ecoles have resisted attempts to tamper with their foundations - though top schools have tried to become small, self-contained universities, with research departments and international links. Polytechnique's intake may be 400 but its campus numbers 3,000 people. The contrast is stark: in France, a fixed binary system with no connecting thread of excellence along which institutions can move, a privileged experience for a few, under-resourced and over crowded provision for the many: in Britain, a shifting kaleidoscope of institutions which can rise and fall in public esteem with the risk that under-resourcing will drag the whole raft under.

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