The French Educational Algorithm of Inefficiency

Much like in the US presidential election, politicians in France must grapple with complex issues involving public education. The education system in France boasts egalitarian, incredibly accessible, high-quality universities. Most of these praised universities were established in the 18th century, and are still highly regarded – but nothing much has changed in their approach to education, except for the era in which they are now. Candidates and those who work in education are criticizing the inability of the French educational system to adapt and evolve to new student demands in a globalized world. The government has to put an end to the hypocrisy of the system and establish clear criteria of selectivity.

Even though the system hasn’t changed substantively, it is trying to present a modernized façade. In 2008, the Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur et de la recherche, the French equivalent of the US Department of Education, launched a digitized admissions process for universities by which students are matched to universities using computer software. The APB (Admission-Post-Bac) system was implemented nationwide in 2009. Portrayed as a simple and straightforward tool with no selectivity criteria for student-university matching, APB has left some discontented students demanding to know more about this machinery.

Only last June, eight years after the creation of APB, the government released guidelines about the software, but the guidelines were still opaque. At the end of last month, the organization Droits des lycéens, an association that defends high schoolers, voiced its discontent and was finally granted the right to access the algorithm behind APB by the organization CADA (Commission d’accès aux documents administratifs), separate from the Department of Education. But the government still has not released the codes. The failure of the APB system to meet its egalitarian and accessible aims is reflected by the government’s opacity about its algorithm. This phenomenon illustrates the government’s refusal to make strong political choices concerning the question of selectivity. Rather than offer a transparent process of selection, the government has relied on a secretive, obscure computer program, a demonstration of the absurdity of indecision.

The French squabble over selectivity in higher education has its roots in the French Revolution, during which intellectuals attempted to bring education to the masses. The idea of education being laic – secular, mandatory, and free—appeared during the 1790s. While a public primary education system was created, it didn’t fully take off at the time.  The attempt, nevertheless, marks the beginning of the role of the State in French public education.

After a radical return to a closed elitist education system with Napoleon, the breakthrough of the Jules Ferry Laws in 1881 and 1882, fought for by a politician of the same name, gave French education a rare egalitarian ideology. The return of laic, mandatory, and free primary education is the result of a long social struggle for educational equality. It is also the beginning of an esteemed tradition for the French, so precious that it clogs the ability of the government to question the system today. With globalization, some students are leaving for education systems better adapted to modern needs, and it is certainly time for the French system to consider its flaws. Should the government continue to turn a blind eye on the changes in its own system and to new students’ demands, its education system it regards so highly may no longer be feasible.

The more the government tries to maintain the façade of a completely laic, open, and free system, the less egalitarian the system actually is.

Of course the system has evolved since the 1880s, but some of the evolutions in the private system are not even recognized by the government. The system is composed of both hyper-selective paths like the Higher School Preparatory Classes (classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles) commonly called prépas, and universities. Both define themselves as public and accessible to all. The only condition for this open access is to earn the French Baccalaureate, which is the final and national examination of high school. More than 90 percent receive their diploma, and have the doors of APB open to them. Then, students must select their choices of either prépas, or universities on the website. The prépas consist of a minimum of two years, and a maximum of four of “cram school,” with the main goal of training students for the admission exam to the French grandes écoles, the most prestigious universities where they can obtain a Masters. Admission to these schools is very unlikely, and prépas, despite having one of the highest workloads in the world — a minimum of 35 hours of class, 4 hours of in-class exam, 4 hours of oral exams, and more homework during free time — do not deliver a diploma if access to the grandes écoles is not granted. It is uncanny for such a “fair” system that only about 10 percent of students trained in prépas obtain admission to a grande école. After such a burdensome few years, the vast majority of students are in fact left without a diploma, having to start fresh. Universities also offer access to the grandes écoles at the end of the bachelor’s degree, but it is rare to be able to shift to the other path without having done the prépas training. For both paths, students select their choices of tertiary education on APB, and the mysterious algorithm places them. So how are students assigned to their school?

Prépas, unlike universities, are authorized to select their students based on their grades since they are considered to be the “royal path” and have limited spots. Despite this privilege, many private prépas have opened in response to government supervision and limitations on their selectivity. The parallel development of private prépas demonstrates the danger in a system that officially claims to eschew selection processes.

Universities, on the other hand, are not legally allowed to select students, and like prépas, the spots are scarce. The influx of students requesting a spot in universities through APB is due to the rise of students successfully passing the French Baccalaureate. This exam has also been debated in the past few years, because, much like the rest of the education system, it appears to be outdated. It has become too easy to obtain and thereby has lost most of its value. The scarcity of spots in universities has two consequences: first, some pathways like medicine (in France students choose their subject when they sign up on APB Senior year of high school), accept all students for the first year of University and then drastically eliminate them in the next when APB has no control over University behavior. More than 85 percent of the students enrolled are asked to leave the university at the end of the first year, leaving them with no diploma, and forcing them to start over with the APB again. The second option for Universities is to choose students randomly. This is legal and in some ways egalitarian because every student is given the same chances, but it obviously does not consider the merits of each student.

Selectivity is in fact present in the French system through prépas and the second-year elimination of unqualified students. But these paths — as well as random admissions — lack a fair and coherent criteria. “It has never been as hard for a person who has passed the Baccalaureate to enroll in the pathway of his or her choosing,” insists William Martinet, president of the National Union of Students of France (Union nationale des étudiants de France).

The more the government tries to maintain the façade of a completely laic, open, and free system, the less egalitarian the system actually is. By trying to protect the traditional French education system, the state has lost control over its prépas and universities. These institutions now avoid the system, operating a selection process that is not officially recognized and consequently not harmonized. This undermines the machinery that supports French education, making it less qualitative and less competitive. The state has lost control over its schools—but perhaps more importantly, also over its students. Some especially unlucky students cannot even study in their intended field as a result of the algorithm. Justine Gallone was one such student: she obtained her Baccalaureate and asked to follow the Education Sciences pathway in a university, but instead was enrolled in Sociology and Education Sciences. Other students understand this random draw system, and avoid the APB altogether by leaving France to study abroad.

Thomas Piketty, French economist and author of the best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, insists that the need for adapting the system goes beyond just France. “It’s a question of promoting a European model of equality and justice in the access to education,” he says. In the middle of the debate about the government’s lack of transparency on APB’s functioning, one has to acknowledge the potential of the French education to be a qualitative yet fair system. Unavoidable changes have already occurred, and institutions and students are waiting for the government to take action and end the worn-out debate over selectivity. The opacity of the government concerning APB’s algorithm is the effect of their refusal to see the reality of the system. Once the state assumes the role it is meant to play in French education, it will be able to resolve the issues in the system. Using criteria like grades, geographical distance to the establishment, social diversity, or a shrewd mixture of all of these, like Piketty suggests, will still safeguard egalitarian access and, at the same time, reconcile traditions of French education with the pressures of the globalized world.

All French sources were translated by the author.


One comment

  • Interesting article! It is true that France has a real problem with its education system and the inequalities its produces.

    Although I’d like to nuance one point mentioned : “only about 10 percent of students trained in prépas obtain admission to a grande école. After such a burdensome few years, the vast majority of students are in fact left without a diploma, having to start fresh”

    This is not totally accurate: yes only 10% of students get enrolled in Grandes ecoles IF you define Grandes ecoles as only the top 10 engineering and business schools in France – in reality Grandes ecoles is a network of about 300 schools ( see Conference des grandes ecoles) and prepas always prepare for any school member of the CGE regardless of its prestige. So actually more than 95% of prepas students get enrolled in a Grande Ecole after those cram years – they either get enrolled in an engineering/business school or they transfer to university at bachelor level. The ones who start fresh are only choosing to do so often to select a different major.

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