[lg policy] In France, a Bastion of Privilege No More (At the Reims campus the language of instruction is English.)

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Sep 4 20:24:32 UTC 2011

September 4, 2011
In France, a Bastion of Privilege No More

When Richard Descoings took over as director of the Institut d’Études
Politiques de Paris in 1996, students at the school, founded in 1871
and universally known as “Sciences Po,” looked like those at any other
elite French institution.

“We were in the same situation as the Grandes Écoles,” Mr. Descoings
said in a recent interview, referring to places like the École Normale
Supérieure or the École Polytechnique, highly selective pinnacles of
the French higher education system. The director, 53, had once been a
student there himself, following a well-worn, if demanding, path from
private school to the “prépas” — two years of classes designed solely
to prepare a student for the “concours,” the rigorous exam that
governs entry to the most selective schools — then to Sciences Po and
afterward the famed École Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, whose
graduates have long formed the top tier of French public life. A
high-flier, Mr. Descoings was appointed to the Conseil d’État, whose
members advise government ministers and also serve as the country’s
supreme court.

“The students who came to us were almost exclusively white, from
affluent families located in big cities,” he said. “These were
students whose parents and grandparents were university graduates. And
in a country like France — a country with deep social differences
between regions, between the city and the countryside, and between the
social classes — this was a big problem.”

Ten years ago Mr. Descoings decided to do something about it.

“Richard saw the handwriting on the wall,” said Peter Gumbel, a former
journalist who now heads the Center for the Americas at Sciences Po.
“He realized very early on that we would have to find a way to wean
ourselves from government funding in order to grow. And that we would
have to grow to become more diverse. At the same time he blew up the
admissions system.”

In place of the single route to entry, Sciences Po instituted a
threefold admissions procedure: French candidates could take an entry
exam in their final year of secondary school; international
candidates, who at the time made up only a small proportion of the
applicants, could submit a dossier including both school grades and
scores on either national exams, such as the British A-levels, or
standardized tests including the SAT in the United States. French
students who achieved unusually high grades on their baccalauréat
would also be admitted. Most controversially, Sciences Po approached
85 secondary schools in disadvantaged areas of France and agreed to
accept their most able graduates regardless of exam results.

“We said, ‘Just send us your best students,’ and we’ll admit them and
give them whatever financial aid they need in order to attend,” Mr.
Gumbel said.

At the time the effort was announced, commentators in newspapers
across the country assailed the program. While there were some who
praised the changes, others called them an attack on a grand tradition
that has produced world-class scholars. One writer in Le Figaro called
the program an act of “political correctness” that embraced a failed
American approach. Others called it a publicity stunt.

On Tuesday Mr. Descoings will release the school’s official reply to
its critics: a specially commissioned study of the 10-year impact of
the diversity initiative written by Vincent Tiberj, a sociologist who
coordinates research methodology at Sciences Po.

But an early peek at the verdict on what its sponsors describe as “a
French version of affirmative action” reveals a series of successes.
>>From a student body where, in 2001, only 6 percent of students
received any form of financial assistance, the most recent incoming
class at Sciences Po now has 27 percent of students on scholarships —
roughly double the percentage found at any of the top Grandes Écoles.

Mr. Descoings has also presided over a major expansion program, taking
the school from its home campus on the Rue Saint-Guillaume to six new
campuses outside Paris: Poitiers, for Spanish and Latin American
studies; Dijon, which specializes in Eastern Europe; Le Havre for East
Asian studies; Menton for Middle Eastern Studies; Nancy for
Franco-German studies, and Reims for the study of North America and
Britain. At the Reims campus the language of instruction is English.
“Don’t tell the Minister of Culture,” he joked.

As Mr. Gumbel points out, this expansion has occurred despite a
ninefold rise in tuition over the same time period, from €1,050 to
€9,500 for undergraduate fees in the current academic year. In 2004
alone tuition fees tripled, partly as a result of the school’s plan
for greater financial independence but also as a consequence of what
Mr. Descoings describes as “redistribution within the student body”
whereby poorer students pay nothing while those whose family income
exceeds €200,000 a year pay the full tuition.

“Such families may not be wealthy,” said Mr. Descoings, “but at least
we can say that they are ‘at ease.’ ”

So how do the students admitted under the diversity initiative, who
now make up 10 percent of each incoming class, fare once they reach
Sciences Po? “The overwhelming majority keep up or catch up very
quickly,” said Mr. Gumbel, adding that in contrast to the French
university system as a whole, which admits anyone with a high school
diploma but where as many as half the students fail to progress beyond
their first year, the dropout rate at Sciences Po “is marginal.” On
average at least 90 percent of students admitted under the initiative
graduate after three years. After graduation 63 percent are in
full-time employment — compared with a figure of 56 percent for
Sciences Po as a whole.

“And these are genuine, long-term jobs, 90 percent of them in the
private sector. Half of these graduates are earning more than €2,500 a
month. That may not be high by American standards but it’s €300 a
month more than the average for the rest of our graduates.”

Mr. Descoings credits the program’s success to a decision to search
for “intellectual potential, rather than just performance on exams.
Teachers are the best judge of that.” But he gives most of the credit
to the students themselves. “Our challenge is mainly to persuade them
that they are good enough to be here.”

Remedial classes are not needed, said Mr. Descoings, but the
scholarship students are offered tutorial support to help them keep up
with a much faster pace than they may have had in secondary school —
and to “explain social and cultural codes.”

“If we have a young girl from a Muslim family, she may have been
taught not to look a man in the eye unless he is a relative,” he said.
“But in our culture someone who doesn’t look you right in the eye when
speaking is considered devious.”

With 40 percent of the student body now coming from outside of France,
Mr. Descoings and the institution he heads have embraced a future that
looks very different from the world he grew up in — a world where
“everybody’s children went to the same schools — as we say in France,
education was a form of ‘social reproduction’ — these students did not
have success given to them at birth. The world is very different when
you have to win what you get.”

Some critics have complained that as a result of so many changes, the
institution has lost its focus. Mr. Descoings replies that even in his
day, only a minority of graduates went on to the careers in public
service for which their education was supposedly designed. Besides, he
said, if French universities were consistently ranked in the top 10,
“or even in the top 50, you could argue that we don’t need to look at
ourselves, or to change. But we are not in that situation.”

He continued: “In 2005 we had 10 days of riots here in France. When
you think about that, and you look at what has been happening recently
in England, you realize that if we do not open our best universities,
if we do not open our private companies, if we do not open our
political bodies to all our citizens, then the future of our nation is
in danger.”

Unapologetic about the changes he has brought about, Mr. Descoings
agreed with his critics on two points. To those who complain that the
majority of classes at Sciences Po are no longer taught by academics,
he replied: “We are proud of that. In sociology or humanities we need
academics. But for classes in marketing or journalism or law students
should encounter practitioners.”

As for those who say that by requiring all undergraduates to “practice
an art” during their studies he is “Americanizing” a proud French
institution, he replied: “Yes, if practicing an art is American, then
in that sense we are becoming more American. We want our students be
creative, to innovate. Sciences Po can’t afford to remain an
institution offering old recipes for an old world.”


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