Minister wants ‘concrete solutions’ on access from grandes écoles

Frédérique Vidal discusses reform project launched in wake of president’s plan to abolish École Nationale d’Administration

September 19, 2019
Frédérique Vidal
Source: Shutterstock

France’s higher education minister has said that grandes écoles need to “change their minds” on how to achieve a student body that better reflects society after she launched a reform project following Emmanuel Macron’s plan to abolish the most prestigious of the institutions.

In April, the French president announced that he wanted to abolish the École Nationale d’Administration, the civil service training school regarded as a feeder into French political and business elites. His proposal came in response to a mass public consultation after the gilets jaunes protests, which were seen as having been sparked by concerns about social and geographical inequality.

Frédérique Vidal, France’s minister of higher education, research and innovation, said that she had met with directors of grandes écoles and asked them “to propose concrete solutions” to improve social diversity by the end of the year.

She told Times Higher Education that she had set out three main guidelines for them: “to increase significantly the [proportion] of working-class pupils in their schools” without sacrificing “excellence”; to “think about students’ lives” and how those from deprived backgrounds could be supported with extra classes or on issues such as housing; and “to look at equal access to jobs” for poorer students after graduation.

It is “really important that the grandes écoles themselves propose solutions, because it’s really important that they change their minds about the way to have a better representation of society in their schools”, said Professor Vidal, former president of the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis.

Admission to a grande école is usually via a written entry exam, part of the concours system, preceded by two-year preparatory courses.

Professor Vidal said: “Society has changed. In France, we have been very proud of our meritocracy model and our concours model. But nowadays, the problem is that that kind of meritocracy is more and more linked to the capacity to obtain the right information at the right time.” Too much hinges on parents’ knowledge about access to the most prestigious Paris classes préparatoires, she argued.

Mr Macron’s April speech also laid out plans for “connected campuses” providing higher education beyond big cities.

Professor Vidal said the concept has been tested in 13 locations, with the goal being to have 100 such campuses by 2022. The aim is “to offer curricula from the best universities and grandes écoles” in smaller towns, she added.

Meanwhile, Sciences Po, a prestigious institution that admits students direct from high school, unlike the grandes écoles, announced major reforms to its admissions in June, opting to abolish the written entry exam taken by roughly half the candidates.

Frédéric Mion, director of Sciences Po, told THE that the written exams were “a deterrent” for some students because they were “perceived as something you had to prepare for, and preparing for those written exams meant, for most parents, paying for private preparation”.

Although work on Sciences Po’s reform plan began two years ago, long before the Macron ENA announcement, Mr Mion said the issue of fair access in higher education had been given “new importance with the rise of populist sentiment in France…[by] the crisis of the elites and the fact they [elites] are no longer perceived as legitimate”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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