Why have you heard of Oxford but not École Normale Supérieure?

By: Michal Rajski, Alexandra Davis, Gabriel Goodspeed, Dalton Goree, Theresa Haunold, and Nate Johnson

Though the notion of “the best universities in the world” is a subjective one, a few select names undoubtedly come to mind; while those names are mostly American (read: Ivy League Et Al.), universities like Oxford and Cambridge are prominent foreign contenders. Nonetheless, there exists a severe lack of representation of schools from other well-known European nations. Consider France — the birthplace of Pascal and Descartes and the grounds for one of the greatest revolutions in world history. In the 2016 Times Higher Education Rankings (2), a highly regarded measurement of university quality, France claimed only one spot in the top hundred: École Normale Supérieure at number 66. Across the channel, the United Kingdom secured six spots in the top twenty-five alone, supplying the names of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, and the University of Edinburgh, to name a few. There are unfortunately several barriers that France must overcome, mainly regarding state spending and admissions philosophy, if it wants to thrive in the academic world.

The United Kingdom and France spend similar amounts on education in relation to GDP — 5.76% versus 5.52%, respectively (3).  However, there is an elitism rooted in the French system that is not reflected in this 2011 statistic; the exclusionary principles are not only seen in the admissions process but also in France’s expenditure on each university student.  Contrary to the United Kingdom’s widely accessible UCAS higher education application system and admissions tests, French students are subject to a seemingly perpetual swarm of standardized examinations with high failure rates (6). Moreover, the French government spends 6,700 per public university student per year, but up to 13,000 can be spent per Grande École student despite the latter’s only accounting for 5% of total students (6). Essentially the other 95% of French university students are thrown into a lesser funded system with brutal dropout rates. Indeed, it is this disparate proportion of spending between the two categories of French schools that underlines the elitism inherent in French higher education.

Ultimately, it is because of France’s unequal expenditure per student that the mainland nation pales in comparison to the United Kingdom’s spending, where tuition is even substantially lower than in France. French university students pay the equivalent of about $200 per year on average (10), whereas British university students in 2010 paid between $3,700 to $11,000 (9). With such a relatively low tuition, many French students have access to universities but do not expect much individual attention in large classrooms or well-maintained buildings. Students at Bordeaux 3, a French University, complain that building renovations are neglected midway (9). In sum, since no private universities exist in France, the only way for students to be guaranteed optimal resources is for them to be admitted to elite schools. Conversely, students in the United Kingdom pay more but expect a higher quality education in turn (8). The French system claims a universal right to education for all, but “the British pragmatic imperative to lay the debt on the individual might be a more powerful incentive for students to succeed” (4). This different attitude is not to say that the British do not also grumble about high tuition, but they still ultimately expect their educations to be of use to them in their future — unlike the French.

Indeed, policies are indissociable from the culture in which they are created. For example, the Education Code has prohibited private institutions from calling themselves universities since 1880. Diplomas from private universities may or may not be recognized by the state. This policy stems from the egalitarian sentiment in France, where higher education is free. Free education is a strong statement that constitutes the first article of the <<Code de l’EÉducation>>, which contains all laws surrounding education. Ironically, this message raises important questions for French universities. Is there truly equality in French higher education, and if so, why are the top five percent of students receiving nearly double the funding?

France’s <<Code de l’Éducation>> also entails that every French citizen with a Baccalauréat (the equivalent to a U.S. high school diploma) has the right to attend a university. Most public universities in France have low tuition fees. In reality, this manifests itself in overfilled auditoria, high dropout rates, and an unnaturally fierce competitive environment among students. Ella, a first-year medical student in Paris, is part of a class of 1,500 students and recounts, you could leave your laptop behind and no one would go near it, but some students steal your notes and destroy them. [The students] think that, by screwing you up, they improve their own chances of passing first year (7). This level of competition, where students operate under a “zero-sum game” mindset, is not present in the United Kingdom. When asked “what single word explains why people go into higher education,” 56.6% of the 4,212 respondents chose “fun” (5). French students walk a tightrope simply trying to pass class at university, whereas British students enjoy less academic pressure in a system not necessarily emphasizing “the right to attend university.”

However, in practice, elitism has been deeply ingrained in the French university system as egalitarianism. The aforementioned elite public institutions that receive 30% of the government’s budget for higher education despite teaching less than 5% of students, the Grandes Écoles, were established in the eighteenth century. In fact, most of the political and social elite of France, including President François Hollande, studied at the Grandes Écoles. Graduates from different Grandes Écoles receive nicknames such as énarque, which is a play on the ENA acronym, École nationale d’administration, a grande école for politics, paired with monarque, or monarch; these people are often mocked in the media. Ironically, while France maintains its mantra of “everyone has the right to an education,” it blatantly contradicts itself in how it carries out this philosophy through disproportionate funding and, in some cases, stifling academic environments.

The accessibility of French universities — both from an admissions perspective and from a financial perspective — has had paradoxically negative consequences on students. Low fees unfortunately mean lower teacher quality and accessibility, leading to students being crammed into large rooms for lectures and eventually weeding them out due to chaotic conditions. In 1968, French Minister of Education Alain Peyrefitte compared undergraduate life in France to “organizing a shipwreck to see who can swim” (1). At least in this respect, after almost fifty years, not much has changed.

At France’s open enrollment public universities, the first year dropout and failure rate is close to 50% — compared to just 8.4% at British institutions (4). For more competitive fields like medicine, rates of failure at French universities are even higher; 90% of medical students do not pass their first year and 80% of those who repeat it are again unsuccessful (6). Moreover, while 75% of British students complete their degrees in three years, this is true for just 27% of French students (7). The failure of French students in completing their educations poses obvious problems for them and for the schools they attend. This failure of completion is largely attributed to the low fees and selection rates at non-elite institutions because students often enter programs for which they are not qualified. If French universities had definite prerequisites, they could not only save students time and money in the long run but also decrease failure rates.

Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that some of the problems with France’s educational system originate outside of policy. French universities continue to teach and publish in French instead of English, leading to an inaccessibility in the schools not found in other countries. Many French universities actually have banned lecturing in a foreign language in an effort to preserve native tongue. The French language may have been a bridge language in the 18th and 19th centuries, but English is the language of the 21st century. Frances failure to teach in English ultimately results in a low average enrollment of international students. Additionally, there are very few French publications in journals such as Science (United States) and Nature (United Kingdom), further depressing France’s position in rankings. About 85% of articles on Scopus, one of the most popular databases for peer-reviewed literature, are written in English (11). Thus, a reluctance to accept the globalization of English lowers France’s ability to become an international research powerhouse.

Although it may be difficult to change a country’s attitude toward education, there are some changes that France could employ to boost their universities’ reputations.  For example, by embracing the English language, France might not only produce more publications in prestigious academic journals but also attract more international students. Having a more open application process for French universities, similar to UCAS in the United Kingdom, would streamline the application process for easier access for prospective students, resulting in higher overall enrollment. Finally, instituting a holistic admissions process similar to that of the US or UK, as well as more rigorous admissions criteria to decrease failure rates, would also serve to alleviate finances and tense environments in French higher education. What is clear, in sum, is that French universities must institute concrete reforms to be able to compete on the world stage.