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Equality of Opportunities: France's recent educational reform and the backlash against it

One of our French traditions, at least for the left, is demonstrating contempt or support for a law, legislature or government. Some carry messages of tolerance and acceptance, such as those who were in favour of the same-sex marriage law; while others convey despise and conservatism, such as La Manif pour Tous (Demonstrations for All), who campaigned against same-sex marriage.

Having lived in Asia for a few years, where I think I have, in totality, seen no more than five demonstrations (including Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement), I realised that whenever a change is proposed by either side of France’s Parliament, protests always follow.

Demonstrations here have a colourful aspect: red flags and yellow safety jackets are worn everywhere, accompanied with large banners and the sound of firecrackers and speakers, in a mist of burning tires and tear gas. These protests are such an important part of the French people's political involvement that it has actually been enshrined as a Constitutional principle since the Fourth Republic.

The Loi Vidal, from the name of the Minister of Higher Education, also called Loi ORE (Orientation et Réussite des Etudiants – Guidance and Success of Students) certainly does not constitute an exception to the rule. Since its introduction before Parliament earlier this year, this law has created great division in France, but it seems that the government plans to hang tight and proceed with its implementation.

Caption: "Loi Vidal, social selection"

An overview of the French tertiary education system

In France, tertiary (higher) education is separated into two kinds, selective and non-selective. While the former involves a (usually highly) competitive entrance exam and limits access to preparatory classes and private universities (e.g. HEC, Sciences Po, etc.); the latter is strictly barred from using any academic criterion to select candidates. France is one of the only European countries to have such a law under the principle of equality of opportunity, and to uphold it so strongly, through the jurisprudence of the Council of State (the supreme administrative court).

However, and this is a fact everyone must agree upon: there is a disproportionately larger number of applicants compared to the number of places available at universities. So how does this affect candidates? Until this year (the system was slightly modified in 2018), the French equivalent of UCAS, APB (Admission Post-Bac) consisted of the following elements:

12 organised wishes. Each student could ask for 12 tertiary education formations, ranking the choices from 1 (most favourite) to 12 (least favourite). Academies. These are Ministry of Education bodies in charge of geographical division, following the structures of the regions. Under the current system, students live or study in the academy of the university they have applied to. (crazy right?) Order of your choices. If you confirm that a university is your first choice, then you are more likely to be accepted than a similar candidate who placed it as their second choice.

As per the law, the platform does not ask you for your grades, transcripts or recommendations (unless you add selective universities in your list).

For universities in Paris, where the number of applicants exceeded the number of seats available, a lottery was put in place. (yeah, you read that correctly, a lottery could decide your future.)

What the current system entails

Having studied abroad, the question of the academy was not an issue for me as it meant that I could apply to any university. But, for those who live in France, the locations of their high school or their home address actually determines where they will be prioritized. What that means is that high schools in downtown Paris are in high demand, as students want to maximise their chances of pursuing higher education at the best universities in the country, most of which are located there.

However, there’s a catch - to get into these high schools, you need to live in specific areas in downtown Paris. Considering the high cost of living in Paris and the existing problem of spatial segregation, it is inevitable that this creates inequalities of access to education.

The government has created an interactive map of sectorization of access to high schools in Paris, each blue pin is an institution. (link)

Essentially, even if you are a highly deserving student living outside of Paris (let alone in another region altogether), your chances of entering a well-known, prestigious university in the capital are minimal. De facto, students who end up in Paris’s universities will be privileged students from wealthier families.

Apart from the difficulty of access to Parisian universities, the absence of selection to higher education also entails something else: lower success rates (i.e. fewer students completing their degree and graduating with a diploma).

The lottery, social segregation coupled with the total absence of access to any academic data has led to a clear disparity between selective and non-selective universities in terms of success rates. This is because selective universities would have already ensured that the students it accepted had the capabilities and prerequisites to succeed and graduate with a diploma in hand. According to the Ministry of Higher Education’s report for the 2009-2010 batch, only 30.6% of students at non-selective universities remained in the same field without repeating a year. 22.7% repeated a year, while 43% left higher education altogether (only a mere 3.7% change paths).

Reforming the system: the ORE Law

To counter these issues, the government of Edouard Philippe, under the presidency of Emmanuel Macron, has proposed the ORE Law. This law does not introduce systematic selection for all universities: it only applies to those experiencing tension, i.e. that have a disproportionate number of applicants per place available.

For example, this would allow Parisian universities (all of them experiencing this problem) to have a jury to examine “the competences acquired in students’ prior formation” and each student’s “competencies”, instead of using a lottery to decide their fate. The objective for universities would be to ensure that they have the basic abilities to graduate.

This is not, as we have heard over and over again, at the expense of leaving students out of our education system: students are still required to place a wish in a “pastille verte” (a formation that usually has enough spots for each candidate).

Misinterpretations and misreadings

Caption on banner: "the faculty belongs to us, university for all"

It is very worrying to see the number of people who have misunderstood this law to mean that all access to university will be solely based upon selection; that it will further maintain what Durkheim called “social reproduction” and maintain the domination of the bourgeoisie over lower classes.

This selection is also a way to ensure that deserving students are not left unable to reach their ambitions, and that students who are admitted have the basic and core prerequisites to succeed and walk out with a diploma.

France’s national motto is “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” The ORE Law will allow for the liberty of students to attain their dreams; equality in access to tertiary education (which would no longer be primarily constrained to geographic matters); and fraternity, as France offers numerous option in which students can succeed even if it does not mean studying at a “general university.”

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