Thursday, January 7, 2010

Grandes Ecoles

FLG has read several articles about education reform in France and the role of the grandes écoles. For those of you who don't know the grandes écoles are specialized, elite institutions that are separate from the university system. Here's the wikipedia article.

Anybody who passed the high school graduation test, le baccalauréat, gets into their university, which are free. (Or damn near close.) This leaves them with a lot of students and little funding. Attempts to add selectivity or fees have faced fierce ideological opposition from the socialist groups that permeate France.

The grandes écoles are selective and students spend a year or two preparing for entrance exams. These years are called, creatively, "classes préparatoires" or "prepas."

Any self-respecting middle class parent wants their kid to attend a grande école and not a university. Certain positions in the government bureaucracy are reserved for graduates of the grandes écoles. A particularly influential one is Ecole nationale d'administration, or ENA, whose graduates are known as enarques. M. Sarkozy is notable for being the first in who knows how long in not being an alumus of that school.

To put the whole thing in perspective, this article says that 55% of higher education students are in university and only 14% are in classe préparatoire or a grande école. And some of those in classe préparatoire will not be accepted and end up in a university.

On paper, the grandes écoles were supposed to be a meritocracy, but, as it is everywhere, there are a bunch of people left out. Particularly minorities. The grande ecoles are facing pressure to increase their diversity. They are resisting a call for a 30% quota, fearing that their standards will decrease among other things.

Another article argues that universities and grandes ecoles must work together to improve quality and equality. (Complete with the "to compete in a globalized economy" blather...)

As one of the articles asks:
Comment croire que le niveau des concours doit être intangible afin de fixer à jamais une hiérarchie entre jeunes Français à l'âge de 20 ans?

Rough translation:
How to believe that the competition between 20 year-olds must fix a permanent hierarchy for the rest of their lives?

And that is where the crux of the problem lies. It's that the numerous rigidities in the French labor market. Once you have a job you are protected. But once you enter the grande ecole you are super protected because certain jobs, the plush ones, are reserved for you.

Harvard is difficult to get into and it's not a perfect meritocracy either. And while it certainly helps in the job market to have Harvard on there, no jobs are reserved for only Harvard alumni by law.

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