Sciences Po proves critics of 'priority' scheme wrong

Poor students thrive at elite university and go on to earn more than their peers. Jack Grove reports

September 15, 2011

Poor and ethnic-minority students selected through "positive discrimination" are thriving at an elite French university, according to a report by one of its academics.

L'Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris - better known as Sciences Po - was criticised when it announced it would drop entrance examinations for 10 per cent of its intake in 2001 to recruit more poor students.

Schools in deprived areas put forward their most promising pupils for admission via interview, with those chosen eligible for bursaries and financial aid to cover fees.

Critics said the Priority Education Conventions scheme would fail because the students would be stigmatised as "second class". They also claimed that it contradicted the French Republic's egalitarian principles by favouring black and Asian students over whites. But a study by sociologist Vincent Tiberj into the achievements of "priority students" in the past decade shows otherwise.

Dr Tiberj, who works at Sciences Po's European Studies Unit, found that priority students kept pace with their peers academically and often earned more after they graduated.

Tracking the 860 students who have been through the scheme so far, the study found that the overwhelming majority quickly caught up with their peers and that drop-out rates were "marginal".

Analysis of graduates who left between 2006 and 2011 found that the proportion in full-time employment three months after graduation (63 per cent) was higher than among non-scheme students (56 per cent). And half of priority students earned at least €300 a month more than the average monthly wage for Sciences Po graduates.

"These former students are not considered 'cut-price Sciences Po' graduates," said Dr Tiberj. "Quite the contrary: employers treated them like their peers or perhaps better."

The vast majority of students on the scheme "obtained degrees and were now employed in 'classic' jobs for Sciences Po graduates".

Sciences Po is held to be on a similar level to France's grandes écoles, which hold entrance exams and operate outside the main higher education framework.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and former heads of state Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterrand are among those to have attended Sciences Po, widely seen as the French equivalent of the London School of Economics.

Peter Gumbel, professor of journalism and director of Sciences Po's Centre for the Americas, said that following the success of the scheme there was "now an informal target of having 30 per cent of students at grandes écoles from a more socially diverse background".

However, Daniel Sabbagh, a senior research Fellow at Sciences Po's Centre of International Studies and Research, has accused supporters of affirmative action of "dissimulation", saying they "systematically play down the most contentious aspects of the policy, namely its anti-meritocratic component".

In a paper presented at an American Political Science Association conference shortly after the scheme was launched, he called for Sciences Po to be more candid about its intentions, saying the scheme is an "indirect, race-based affirmative action policy", which will disproportionately benefit children from African immigrant families given that they are more likely to live in deprived areas.

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