France's venerable political-science institute adopts controversial reforms
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Sep 2 12:53:25 UTC 2005
>>From the issue dated September 2, 2005
Lessons From -- Quel Horreur! -- les Americains
France's venerable political-science institute adopts controversial
By AISHA LABI
Richard Descoings epitomizes a certain breed of cultured, worldly
Frenchman. Impeccably tailored, with his hair slicked back in a coiffure
few American college presidents could carry off, he is forcefully
articulate in both French and English. His business card identifies him
not just as director of the prestigious Institute of Political Studies of
Paris (better known as "Sciences Po") and administrator of France's
National Foundation of Political Sciences, but also as a counselor of
state -- an official government adviser. He is politically astute enough
to know how ill-advised it may be in the current climate of strained
trans-Atlantic ties for a Frenchman to cite the United States as a model.
"The problem in Europe is that when people want to oppose a proposition or
a strategy, they just say you are preaching the American example," he
says. Mr. Descoings must have heard that rebuke many times. Since becoming
head of the institute in 1996, he has put into place a controversial
series of reforms at the elite university, which has a history of
educating France's political leadership. Many of the changes he has
overseen -- the establishment of an affirmative-action admissions policy,
an increase in tuition based on family income, and a new focus on private
fund raising to help remedy a loss of government financing -- are
unabashedly American in their inspiration. They run counter to the
traditional French view of higher education as a publicly financed
meritocracy. Mr. Descoings is even bold enough to utter this sacrilege:
"English is not a foreign language. It has become the world's professional
Sciences Po is one of France's dozen or so grandes ecoles, or elite
schools, the select cadre of higher-education institutions that has
produced generations of French political, business, and intellectual
leaders. Originally private, Sciences Po was nationalized by Charles de
Gaulle in 1945 but has remained quasi-private, giving Mr. Descoings the
autonomy to make such ambitious changes. The institute's graduates include
France's president, Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin,
and the fashion trailblazer Christian Dior, along with Mr. Descoings
Like the other grandes ecoles, Sciences Po has tended to draw its students
from families in France's upper social and economic echelons. Most are the
product of a handful of selective high schools, and many have had the
additional advantage of private tutoring to help them pass grueling
entrance examinations. The predominately white graduates have typically
gone on to fill the kinds of roles their parents occupied, perpetuating a
closed cycle of institutionalized privilege.
France's fast-growing immigrant population, largely of North African
origin, has remained disproportionately underrepresented in higher
education, underscoring the inequities of such a traditional admissions
model. Continuing to recruit France's future professional elite "on such a
small social basis" is unacceptable, says Mr. Descoings. "Smartness,
intelligence, the capacity of working hard, personal ambition -- these are
shared by all our population. So it's unfair not to open our doors and to
enlarge the population of candidates as much as possible."
Opening Its Doors
In 2001, Mr. Descoings revamped the admissions policy to broaden the pool
of young people from which Sciences Po selects its students. The
university now has links with 23 high schools in some of France's poorest
urban neighborhoods and encourages students there to begin thinking early
about applying. Selected students from those designated "priority
education zones" bypass the normal two-day admissions examination and
instead take an oral exam administered by a committee at Sciences Po.
As Mr. Descoings had anticipated, the policy of "positive discrimination"
-- the term the French use for this process, rather than affirmative
action -- has been highly controversial. Opponents cast it as an attempt
to undermine the principle of equality and therefore an attack on one of
the three pillars (along with liberte and fraternite) of French
republicanism. But in 2003 a Paris appeals court ruled that the policy was
constitutional, rejecting a challenge by France's main right-wing student
Mr. Descoings says the policy is unlike race-based American
affirmative-action programs, because it targets schools in underprivileged
areas, not just certain students in those schools. "We don't admit
candidates on the basis of ethnicity or social class," he says. "In those
high schools there are white pupils, black pupils, and people whose
families came from North Africa." Mr. Descoings insists that the
affirmative-action program is as rigorous as the conventional route into
Sciences Po, with a selection rate of around 10 percent, although he says
there are no quotas.
Once students from the 23 high schools are admitted to the 6,500-student
institute, no concessions are made for their background. "They are in the
same classrooms, they have the same professors, the same written exams,"
Mr. Descoings says of the approximately 150 students who have been
admitted through the program since it began. "And they not only succeed on
average. Some of them are excellent and have some of the best grades."
Aurlie Aubry commutes to Sciences Po's main campus in Paris's chic Sixth
Arrondissement from the working-class suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, 20 miles
northeast of the capital. Her mother is a secretary, her father is a
factory technician, and she is the first person in her family to attend a
university. It was visits from Sciences Po representatives and the
experiences of students who had gone on to Sciences Po from her high
school, one of the 23 in the priority education program, that convinced
her she could do the same. To apply, she had to first take part in a
rigorous internal selection process, which whittled the field of
candidates from her high school down to four, all of whom were accepted.
Ms. Aubry says that she felt "a lot of apprehension" when she began her
studies last year, but she adjusted and made friends quickly, thanks in
part to a monthlong orientation, during which affirmative-action students
are mixed with selected other students. She concedes that her easy
integration could owe something to the fact that she is not immediately
identifiable as an affirmative-action admission, whereas students of North
African origin might be.
Still, she makes no secret of her background and is proud of how she got
to Sciences Po, which she knows has opened up career opportunities that
she might never have had. Most of her classmates are open-minded and
nonjudgmental, she says, and she is dismissive of the right-wing students
who sued to overturn the admissions policy and who have been vocal in
their opposition to affirmative action. "I don't want to speak to people
who don't respect me," she says.
Transforming Sciences Po by enrolling more students like Ms. Aubry is only
one element of Mr. Descoings's vision for the institute. The institute's
traditionally inward-focused teaching approach, he concluded, was out of
touch in a globalized age. A leading university can no longer afford to
limit its mission to training future French civil servants and
Pascal Delisle is director of Sciences Po's American Center, which was
created five years ago and is the centerpiece of the university's
trans-Atlantic outreach policy. He says the United States has played a key
role in the institute's efforts to redefine itself. "We are European by
nature," he says. But it is the best American institutions -- selective,
with enough autonomy and independent financing to chart their own future
-- that boast the combination of attributes that Sciences Po's leaders
most want to emulate.
Sciences Po, in turn, is helping those same American institutions become
more international. In October, Sciences Po will begin offering a new
master's program in public policy with Columbia University and the London
School of Economics and Political Science. "Our MPA curriculum is a pretty
standard American curriculum, heavy on economics and statistics and
heavily quantitative," says Lisa Anderson, dean of Columbia's School of
International & Public Affairs.
Ms. Anderson also sits on the board of Sciences Po's American Center. When
they were setting up the new program, she recalls, the French participants
were puzzled by the absence of law in the American curriculum. "Americans
would never think of public policy and law. Europeans can't imagine public
policy without law. That kind of thing is why these discussions are so
valuable to us -- they force us to face our parochialism."
The institute now has exchange programs with over 30 leading American
universities, and since 2000 has required all of its undergraduates to
spend a year abroad. About 200 students go each year to the United States,
the most popular destination, and roughly the same number come to Sciences
Po from American universities.
Amber Johns, who is majoring in French and international relations at the
University of California at Berkeley, has just spent her junior year here,
where she hopes to pursue a master's degree eventually. "As far as access
to the type of education I was looking for, Sciences Po is incredible,"
she says. Having instructors who are also top officials at France's
Foreign Ministry, for example, allowed her a perspective on the world of
French diplomacy she could never otherwise have gained. "I benefited
mostly by having my eyes opened to what's going on in the world from a
'A Harder System'
The institute's graduates are famed for their ability to construct concise
and lucid arguments and to speak well in public, skills that are
reinforced by the many oral presentations they are required to make. Ms.
Johns found the pedagogical differences daunting. "It's a harder system,
much more rigid, and the amount of knowledge and preparation the students
come in with is incredible," she says. American students also struggle
with longer essays, says Mr. Delisle, who likens the constrained, formal
structure French professors demand to the geometric precision of a classic
French garden. Ms. Johns found the methodology challenging but sometimes a
"Sciences Po has a narrow system in how they want you to think and what
they want you to think," she says. "They have a very specific way of
analyzing political problems and issues, which is a wonderful tool and
tactic, but is very specific to what these students are going to become,
which is French political leaders." Americans are just some of the many
foreigners who constitute one-third of the university's student
population. (Mr. Descoings wants that proportion to increase to one-half.)
Nora Siegert, a third-year political-science major from the University of
Leipzig, in eastern Germany, spent the past year here. She was thrilled
with the institute's resources, which she says are "unbelievable" compared
She was also delighted to be able to take seminars with just 20 students.
In Leipzig's political-science program, she says, there are often 300 in a
class. "There is a lot of theory," she says. "It's much less practical,
less focused on application. I still haven't decided which I like best."
The resources that Ms. Siegert found so impressive nonetheless lag behind
top American universities. At Berkeley, for example, students have access
to online databases like LexisNexis. Here, Ms. Johns says, "sometimes a
professor assigns a book to read for an exam and the school doesn't even
have it in the library, so it's up to you to look all over and find it."
Resource improvements and infrastructure upgrades, such as the
construction of Sciences Po's first dormitory, require infusions of cash
at a time when money is tighter than ever at French universities. Sixty
percent of the institute's approximately $110-million annual budget comes
from the French government, with the remainder provided by tuition and
other sources. Princeton University, which has a similar number of
students, has a budget of $800-million and a $10-billion endowment.
Sciences Po has no endowment to speak of, other than its real estate.
"Thirty years ago state funding was above 80 percent, 20 years ago it was
70 percent, now it is just 60," says Mr. Descoings. "We can't wait for the
government to give us all the money we need." To make up the shortfall, in
2003 he introduced what he acknowledges is a "radical" change in tuition
'For Free You Have Nothing'
As in much of Europe, the notion that university education should be free
is still widely cherished in France. Until the early 1990s, the institute
charged the same nominal fee as other public institutions -- which now
ranges from $60 to $430 (U.S.) per year, depending on the kind of degree.
But Mr. Descoings dismisses as "a lie" the idea that free education is
essential to the republican ideal. "When a university has a library that
doesn't have many books, when there are not enough seats to give students
the possibility of studying at any time, when students are forced to buy
their own books or pay for their own subscriptions, when there is not
enough computer equipment and students have to pay for their own
equipment, and when you don't have a career office so you have to count on
family connections to get a job, this is not equality," he asserts. "So
when you say free education with poor universities, that means only the
privileged classes can have good studies that develop their intelligence
and lead them to good jobs.
"Today when you go to the Sorbonne, it doesn't cost much, but the
professors are not there because they have no offices. They don't have
computers. You have 70, 80 students in each class. It's crazy. It's free,
but for free you have nothing." The solution, Mr. Descoings believes, is
to charge tuition of between $600 and $6,000, based on how much a family
can afford. Students from outside the European Union would pay the top
rate, as should wealthy French students, he says. "Can you imagine that 17
percent of our students belong to families whose annual net income is
above 125,000 euros, which means they belong to the highest 2 percent of
households?" he asks, his voice rising. "I do believe they can pay
Sciences Po up to the amount of 5,000 euros a year."
Mr. Descoings and his colleagues are also trying to persuade private
businesses that they have an obligation to support the institute. "It is
very difficult to make people understand that companies have a role to
play in the life of universities," says Nadia Marik, Sciences Po's
director of strategy and development. "In French culture people think that
higher education is a public issue, the government's responsibility. They
think they pay enough taxes and shouldn't have to pay more than that for
higher education." This attitude is so ingrained, says Ms. Marik, that
some alumni who also attended American universities give every year to
those institutions while ignoring Sciences Po's outstretched hand.
Ms. Marik says that French corporations must realize that giving money to
higher education is an investment, not charity. The institute has taken a
project-based approach to corporate philanthropy, with fund-raising
efforts built around specific programs, such as affirmative-action
outreach. A dozen companies contribute to the development and recruitment
of students at disadvantaged high schools and offer internships and job
prospects. It is slow going, but the approach seems to be working. A
decade ago companies gave about $2.4-million to Sciences Po. Today they
give nearly $9.6-million. It is still far from the sums raised by American
institutions, which Mr. Descoings knows is the ultimate measure. "The age
of globalization for universities means comparisons," he says. "We have
mobility of students, of professors, and researchers, so we are compared."
"In my generation, I didn't know how it was possible to be educated at
Oxford or Harvard, or in Asia," he says. "I was French so I went to a
French university." Now that students have more choices, he is trying to
make sure the best and brightest will still find their way to Sciences Po.
Volume 52, Issue 2, Page A66
Copyright 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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