FRANCE: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité - but not yet

It may seem odd that France, a nation whose motto boasts of 'equality', should have two unequal systems of higher education. One comprises the expensive, selective grandes écoles, originally established under Napoleon to train an elite leadership. The other consists of universities that are open to all school-leavers who have passed their baccalauréat exam and that have low fees fixed by the state. But these are too often overcrowded and suffer high student dropout rates, especially after the first year of studies.

Valérie Pécresse, Minister for Higher Education and Research, has called for closer cooperation between the two systems. But, for the present, they remain separate and most students at the grandes écoles are still the children of the socially advantaged - their parents tend to be senior managers, company executives or highly qualified professionals, often alumni of the same schools.

Some initiatives in recent years, however, have been successful in giving young people from less privileged backgrounds greater access to the elite schools. Last November, Pécresse announced the first Cordées de la réussite ("roped together for success") awards to promote more equal opportunities through partnerships between higher education institutions, including the grandes écoles, and lycées situated in disadvantaged areas.

The 125 awards up to and including 2009, totalling EUR2 million (US$2.5 million) (three-quarters of it paid by the inter-ministerial delegation for towns), are for initiatives to provide tutoring, extra teaching support, cultural activities and boarding facilities. The aim is to motivate bright but socially deprived secondary pupils who are intellectually capable of achieving the heights of excellence but hitherto denied access.

The pioneer for greater equality was Richard Descoings, Director of the prestigious Paris-based Institute of Political Studies, commonly known as Sciences Po. In 2001, Descoings shocked the higher education community by launching the controversial 'Priority Education Convention', a partnership with seven lycées in disadvantaged areas or ZEP (zones d'éducation prioritaire/education priority zones).

Sciences Po allocated places to school-leavers based on their school records and an interview without requiring them to take the competitive entrance examination which, like those for other selective institutions, favours candidates from socially privileged groups. Successful applicants from the ZEP also received extra educational support, scholarships and housing allowances.

The convention, and the students, were acclaimed successes; the initiative was expanded and Descoings went on to introduce other equalitarian measures such as means-tested fees including free education for the poorest. In the past eight years, nearly 500 students from 62 partner lycées have studied at the institute and those receiving scholarships have risen from 6% to 20%. In the present academic year, ZEP students represent 14% of the intake. Now Sciences Po is reportedly considering dispensing with its entrance examinations altogether.

A couple of years after Sciences Po's initiative, the prestigious business school Essec devised its PQPM programme ("Une grande école, pourquoi pas moi?") to support students at partner lycées in ZEP through tutoring and course guidance. This too was hailed as a success, with more youngsters passing the baccalauréat, enrolling for higher degree courses and qualifying for selective studies such as the two-year preparatory classes (CPGE) that precede the competitive entry examinations to the grandes écoles and are provided in specialised lycées.

Among elite higher education institutions that have since introduced programmes similar to PQPM are the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Polytechnique, Ecole des Mines, Audencia Nantes, Euromed Marseille.

Nearly 5,000 young people have benefited, though some of the most prestigious schools have yet to admit any of them. Some CPGE have also started organising networks with ZEP lycées to give promising school-leavers a year of 'pre-preparatory class' studies.

Pécresse has indicated she wants the grandes écoles and the universities to work more closely and she commissioned a report from Professor Christian Philip of Lyon-3 University on how this could be done.

In January she told a conference of heads of CPGE lycées that ultra-selection at 18 years was one of the flaws in the French system: "We must allow [opportunities for] catching up, joint courses," she said.

The proposals she set out followed those of Philip's report, including setting up CPGEs in universities, and encouraging partnerships in masters, doctorates and research through joint degrees.

But she added that the new university-based preparatory classes would not weaken the present system of CPGE "which have proved their worth and will see a strong increase of their students in coming years".