France’s top political and administrative university has been accused of sacrificing “meritocracy and excellence” for “positive discrimination" after it announced this week its decision to scrap its entrance exam to improve social mobility.
Six of the past seven French presidents sat the written exam to enter the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, better known as Sciences Po, among them Emmanuel Macron.
But starting next year, it will do away with the written test and admit students on their sixth form record, baccalaureate exam result and a video interview.
"We want to create a clearer, fairer and more efficient system to ensure we attract a more diverse range of profiles," said the school’s director Frederic Mion.
The change, whose aim is to boost the numbers of students from poor backgrounds, follows President Macron’s shock pledge this year to abolish the École Nationale d’Administration, France’s hothouse for civil service known as the ENA.
That measure was part of his response to the seven-month-long “yellow vest” revolt which trained much of its ire on the perceived unfair privileges of the French elite and its ignorance of the harsh reality of the lower middle classes. Studies suggest France is a laggard among western states regarding social mobility.
Mr Mion said: “We want more diversity in background and origins and we also want to take into account diverse criteria of excellence beyond academic ones: openness of the mind, perseverance, inventiveness and resilience.”
But the plan was mauled by the opposition Right-wing Republicans, whose head in the Senate, Bruno Retailleau, said the decision heralded “the end of anonymity” in exams and a “blow against equal opportunities and meritocracy”.
It would, he predicted, instead, foster a “system of cooption tainted with positive discrimination”. “They are giving up on excellence by giving in to dumbing down,” he Tweeted.
His criticisms were shared by some experts, who warned there would be as much social bias in oral as written tests.
One of the key criticisms of the current entrance exam, known as le concours, is that to succeed, many school-leavers spend an extra year at a preparatory college at an average cost of €2,000 in fees.
A study last year showed that 70 per cent of successful Sciences Po entrants were from “higher socio-professional” classes that account for only 18 per cent of the French population.
According to sociologist Pierre Merle, middle-class families will continue to use costly preparatory colleges to ready their children for the oral, thus “reproducing the social bias the institution wanted to get away from”.
Another problem, he said was that basing a national test on continuous assessment “at class level” was unfair as marking varied hugely between schools. Sciences Po’s director disagreed, saying: “We have a selective procedure today and it will be just as rigorously sélective tomorrow, if not more so.”
The “grande école” has form in seeking to widen the social mix of its entrants. In 2001 its then director Richard Descoings created a separate entry system for pupils from 106 schools in poor districts mainly from suburbs ringing many French cities.
However, figures suggest that was largely hijacked by middle-class families registering their children in the poor areas.
Even so, Sciences Po wants to almost double the number of partner schools from deprived areas to 200 in the coming years and ensure that 30 per cent of new entrants come from poor backgrounds.
Such students from priority education areas, along with foreign students, today make up just over half of applicants. Both categories are already exempt from the exam.