Why the French “elite” does not go to University.

Stéphanie Pfeiffer on 2015-10-10

I recently graduated from HEC, a prestigious French business school. I was lucky to study in some of the world’s best institutions. I had great experience, I met students and teachers from all around the world… and every time they asked “Which uni do you come from?”, my answer would always provoke a peculiar reaction:

“Well it’s not really a university, it’s a School…a very competitive school”


“It’s like a college that you enter after 2 years of preparing a competitive exam…”


It goes worse when I explain: “Sorbonne is good, but generally speaking Universities are not considered prestigious in France…”

-complete disorientation-

It’s time to shed light on the French Education System: I would like to outline the key turning points of centuries-old insitutions that fails (refuses?) to adjust to globalisation’s standards. The weight of History holds the system from innovating, making it illegible for foreign schools…and employers.

Sit down, relax and enter my time capsule.

Middle Age: the religious French education

Primary School is mainly a religious venture led by churches, aimed at controlling knowledge and its diffusion.Regarding secondary education, Charlemagne favoured a revival of engineering to train competent administrators who would insure the survival of the Nation. Permission to take the exams to get into those schools is only granted to men who can prove the quality of their birth.

Fact #1 : engineering is historically the most elitist course in France.

The French Renaissance (XVIth century)

The spirit of the Renaissance is marked by Humanism, an intellectual movement challenging the omnipotence of Church all across Europe. Hence, pedagogy is for humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries strategic.

The humanistic ideas in education led to the creation of new universities throughout Europe. In France the University of Paris has the monopoly of education and refuses any innovation. The four faculties -Theology, Law, Medicine, Arts- claim to embrace all that there is useful to study and learn. Science, except for medicine, is reduced to medieval quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

Fact #2 : the State has the monopoly on most French universities.

The French Revolution: the Republican turn

The first French Republic is officially founded during the French Revolution. However, it quickly takes a radical turn due to excessive fervour and leads to the Reign of Terror (1793–94): anyone who rebels against the newly established “Committee of public Safety” is executed.

In secondary education, Royal schools and Universities, symbols of the monarchy, are abolished.

“Grandes Ecoles” are the new prestigious public institutions created to train all French engineers (again!). They are the revolutionists’ instrument to reestablish trust between the Republic and the country’s elites that has been alienated by the Reign of Terror.

Fact #3: paradoxically,“Grandes Ecoles” (today’ most elitist schools) were created by revolutionaries…another French Paradox!

The French Empire and its heritage (1800’s)

Napoleon structures the system : he sets up Lycées (today’s high schools) and classes préparatoires, an intensive 2-year post-high school course preparing student to enrol into the top Grandes Ecoles.

Fact #4: Students can only get into “Grandes Ecoles” after passing a competitive exam that requires 2 years of intensive preparation.

Grandes Ecoles are accused to produce an idle “nobility”, not contributing to industrialisation. Students are content members of the French bureaucracy instead of being inventors.

Numerous Ecoles are founded on private initiatives modelled on the grande école Polytechnique. Amongst them Centrale Paris (1829), Ecole Supérieure de commerce (1819) creating a social and financial gap between public & private education.

The Jules Ferry Era (1880’s)

The 1880s were marked by a major economic and social crisis: the morale is down after losing eastern territories to Prussia in 1870, and strike movements pull down the economy.Jules Ferry — 5 times Minister of education and Prime Minister once — School becomes the reconstruction site of the French Republic around the values of Liberty, Equality & Fraternity.

Fact #5: the strong will to embed republican values is paradoxical with an inherently elitist system.

20th Century : new world, new rules

With globalisation, soft power becomes an increasingly powerful alternative to military prowess. At the forefront of the soft power battle : Harvard, Stanford, Princeton… high schoolers from around the world dream of Ivy League universities. As Secretary of State Colin Powell notes in 2001

“I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated there”

While Education becomes central to economic competitiveness on the liberal global market, France remains focus on internal problems: teachers accuse governments to undermine their jobs, students sling against a two-tier School system : Universities remain unadapted and uncompetitive while“Grande Ecoles” provide a golden ticket to a the National labor market… but still lack international recognition.

I love my country because of its History: it sweats from every street and every building. Understanding French History gives us powerful keys to understand its current Education system.

Today it is precisely the weight of History that’s holding France back :

The complex system translates poorly in a worldwide system dominated by Universities :

Does France lack vision?

The French public authorities faithfulness to the Republican values are a blocker to Universities’ competitiveness on what has become -like it or not- a market.

Is it too late for French Higher Education to get in line with the global economy?

It seems that the more the French is trying to guarantee education for all, the more it actually isolates the citizens who need its help.

Are we actually counter-productive in trying to guarantee free and accessible Education at any price?

Don’t worry, I am not a pessimist. The next article will shed light on the new generation of genuinely passionate game changers who are disrupting our good old dusty system. Watch out .