A Comparative Analysis
Chapter 9: Investing in Change: The Uneven Outcomes of French Higher Education
Renata Semenza 9.1 THE FRENCH SYSTEM OF HE AND ITS TRANSFORMATIONS The French HE system1 is almost entirely public and, as a first approximation, it can be divided between two large sub-systems: the universities and the grandes écoles. The university system, administered by the Ministry of Education (Ministère de l’Enseignement Superieur et de la Recherche, MESR), is characterized by strongly centralized governance and by a marked orientation to research. The universities represent the only track with free access in a HE system which, overall, is instead highly selective, hierarchical and meritocratic. During the nineteenth century, the French universities represented, with few exceptions, the weak link in the HE system in that they were squeezed between the wealthy schools of excellence, on the one hand, and the non-university higher institutes on the other. In this regard Musselin (2001) refers to the ‘long march of the French universities’ towards better educational standards and greater prestige. The grandes écoles instead enjoy high status in French society by virtue of their right to select the best students, and they represent the main vocational track of HE. They are endowed with abundant financial assets and have much greater autonomy than the universities. They depend, besides the Ministry of Education, on other ministries (Industry, Agriculture, Finance) or on the regional chambers of commerce, as in the case of the business schools. Historically, the two systems have divided the HE fields between them, with the universities devoted to the sciences and humanities, and the grandes écoles...
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