Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The snotty Grandes Écoles; Growing Gender Gap in Computer Science

In case you haven't read it from the New York Times already:

December 18, 2005
Elite French Schools Block the Poor's Path to Power

PARIS, Dec. 17 - Even as the fires smoldered in France's working-class suburbs and paramilitary police officers patrolled Paris to guard against attacks by angry minority youths last month, dozens of young men and women dressed in elaborate, old-fashioned parade uniforms marched down the Champs-Élysées to commemorate Armistice Day.

They were students of the grandes écoles, the premier institutions of higher education here, from which the upper echelons of French society draw new blood. Few minority students were among them.

Nothing represents the stratification of French society more than the country's rigid educational system, which has reinforced the segregation of disadvantaged second-generation immigrant youths by effectively locking them out of the corridors of power.

While French universities are open to all high school graduates, the grandes écoles - great schools - from which many of the country's leaders emerge, weed out anyone who does not fit a finely honed mold. Of the 350,000 students graduating annually from French high schools, the top few grandes écoles accept only about 1,000, virtually all of whom come from a handful of elite preparatory schools.

Most of the country's political leaders, on both the right and the left, come from the grandes écoles. President Jacques Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, studied at the National School of Administration, which has produced most of the technocrats who have run France for the last 30 years. Two opposition leaders, François Hollande and Laurent Fabius, did, too.

"It's as if in the U.S., 80 percent of the heads of major corporations or top government officials came from Harvard Law School," said François Dubet, a sociologist at the University of Bordeaux.

These schools - officially there are 200 but only a half dozen are the most powerful - have their roots in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire. Just as the SAT's were meant to give all American students an equal shot at top universities, the examination-based grandes écoles were developed to give the bourgeoisie a means of rising in a society dominated by the aristocracy.

It worked for nearly two centuries. Throughout the 19th century, French administrations drew establishment cadres from the loyal ranks of the grandes écoles, avoiding the universities, which, outside the control of the government establishment, they saw as potential pools of dissent.

Even in the 20th century, the merit-based system allowed young people from modest backgrounds to move up into the corridors of power.

But children of blue-collar workers, who made up as much as 20 percent of the student body of the top grandes écoles 30 years ago, make up, at best, 2 percent today. Few are minority students.

In the 1950's, only a small proportion of French students pursued higher education, leaving room for a slice of the working classes to get into the schools, said Vincent Tiberj, a sociologist who studies social inequalities in France. Since then, the number of candidates for the schools has expanded far faster than the schools themselves.

At the same time, the channels leading into the schools have narrowed: the vast majority of students entering the grandes écoles today come from special two-year preparatory schools, which draw their students primarily from high schools in the country's wealthiest neighborhoods. "The top five or six grandes écoles recruit students from fewer than 50 high schools across France," said Richard Descoings, director of the elite Paris Institute of Political Studies, better known as Sciences Po.

Administrators at the grandes écoles say students who do not follow the focused, specialized curriculum of the preparatory schools have almost no chance of being accepted. And while, theoretically, top students from any high school in the country can apply for the preparatory schools, the system has become so rarefied that few people from working-class neighborhoods are even aware that the opportunity exists.

"There's a lack of information, no one talked to us about the preparatory schools," said Alexis Blasselle, 20, the daughter of working-class parents and now a student at the exclusive École Polytechnique. She learned of the preparatory schools by chance the summer after graduating from high school. "The solution isn't to open up another avenue to get into the grandes écoles, but to make people aware of the possibility."

Sciences Po (pronounced see-ahns po), alone among the elite schools, has opened a new avenue of entry for students. High schools from disadvantaged neighborhoods nominate students, and Sciences Po then gives them oral examinations for intellectual curiosity and critical thinking. This year, 50 students were admitted through the program, while 200 entered through the normal examination process.

The Conference of Grandes Écoles, an association of the 200 schools, has also started a program that reaches out to top students in working-class neighborhoods to help guide them through their high school years and better their chances of getting into a preparatory school.

But the top half-dozen grandes écoles, those that provide the country's leaders in politics and business, remain more or less closed.

The barriers for second-generation immigrants are enormous. Schools in poor, often immigrant neighborhoods get the most inexperienced teachers, who usually move on as soon as they have gained enough tenure for a job in a better area.

The initial fork in the lives of many young people comes when they are about 13 and have to choose between a general course of study or vocational training. Many young second-generation immigrants are guided into technical classes or, at best, post-high-school associate degree programs in marketing or business that are of little help in finding a job.

Second-generation immigrants also often "live in an environment that is outside of French culture," said Mr. Descoings of Sciences Po. "They are not in the proper social network. There isn't the socialization that exists in a wealthy family in an exclusive neighborhood of Paris."

Sitting outside Paul Éluard High School in Saint-Denis, one of the poorest suburbs north of Paris, Bélinda Caci, 16, calls the school guidance counselor "the head of disorientation," saying that the school cares only about making sure that the students graduate, not what happens after that.

"To become part of this crème de la crème, you have to have benefited from a favorable social environment and education," the sociologist, Mr. Dubet, said, calling graduates of the grandes écoles a sort of state nobility. "It's like the Olympics; you have to begin very, very early."

Vive la France!
Vive la France! Wall Mural at the Ecole Polytechnique

Brings to mind an email exchange I had many moons ago with the admissions official at one of the écoles. Back then I was already (sort of) considering overseas institutions of higher learning. With tuition costs being a major factor, I also looked at the continental European schools, other than the well-trodden Anglo-Saxon ones (in US, UK, Aussie, Canada, NZ etc).

So I wrote to them, detailing my A level grades, the countries I was thinking for tertiary education and asking for admissions procedures. This guy replied:

Dear takchek

I am going to try to explain you how engineering education is in France: Among the very best students at scientific baccalaureat ( A level), the best students are selected to enter " classes préparatoires", which is a 2 year programm of hard preparation in maths and physics; after these 2 years,students take a national examination and, according to their rank, can enter such or such engineering " grandes Ecoles". It is a different system from university, more selective. The students have then to take 3 years . this means that it is a 5 year curriculum to become french engineer.. INPG is the federation of 9 Grandes Ecoles in different field. The social status of engineers in France is very high, and nothing to see with english engineers. I do not advise you to study engineering in GB, I rather advise you to go to US. But the best advise i can give you is to enter NUS. It is a very good faculty, and we have a partnership with them, so if you wish to come to France, you can apply after 2 or 3 years to that exchange program of one year, which is a very nice experience; I advise you to take french lessons to prepare this stay.

!@#$% I have nothing against NUS, but in the email I had already made clear I wanted out of Singapore (under the guise of 'international exposure'). I was expecting some kind of directions as to where to learn more about the preparatory schools and the écoles. The écoles' websites then were poorly set up for non-native 'international' students, and their 'English' sections had too many broken links.

This Polytechnique page says it all.

The German Technische Hochschules were worse, directing me to DAAD. BTW, one was Aachen; I figure that they must be of quality as Imperial has a close partnership with them. ETH Zürich wasn't exactly that welcoming of international applicants at the undergraduate level.

Trivia: Imperial College London, TU Delft, ETH Zürich and RWTH Aachen are members of the IDEA league. That probably explained their close relationship. But I didn't know about it in the late 90s.

On hindsight, well, perhaps I should be glad I didn't go to Europe.


Women shunning CS. - From the Boston Globe.

The field is already as lopsided as it is already.


L'oiseau rebelle said...

That email you received is pretty... hilarious, so to speak. I liked the bit on not going to UK, it's beyond parody. Maybe if you had written in French you would have got a better reply? Or maybe the writer was just uncomfortable writing in English. I can see literal French translations of the awkward parts of the email.

takchek said...

I didn't take a third language. I was already struggling with English and Chinese (since sec 1).

A pity, as it would have been good for me. There are so many ecole alums here on campus and for a semester I was out with a girl from Supélec.

They are extremely proud of their schools.

Chätul חתול said...

Yes, my last post I wrote on polish language. This post it is begin polish book "Pan Tadeusz".

Joseph said...

Supélec is one of the very high level engineering school in France (with "Polytechnique", "Centrale", "Mines et Ponts"). There are hundreds of good level engineering school (like INPG) and the unique solution to enter these schools for a non-french speaking student is to enter a local university which has a partnership with a French school. You have to check your university or French engineering school web site to find a good partnership (It's not obvious).
Preparatory school are very particular to French educational system. Once you are graduated (Baccalauréat) you can enter these schools, which purpose is to prepare the students to get the exam to enter the engineering schools. I have no example of foreign students in Preparatory school. But in my engineering school some chinese students enter the school in second year and become graduated after two years in France.
I agree "l'oiseau rebelle" comment. This guy from INPG wasn't comfortable writing in English. The part of English engineers who are "nothing to see" with French ones is a proof. But if you want to study in a French engineer school, his advice is good. You have to enter a partnership program !
Good luck !!

L'oiseau rebelle said...

Heh, I also struggled with Chinese, mostly because I was extremely uninspired to study - I mean, memorize - for exams. I studied French only after my A Levels, and continued a bit in my first few semesters in college. It definitely was useful, particularly for reading journal papers that are written in French, and are usually not translated.