Higher education: 30 years of reforms, still too much inequality


Since the 1980s, the notion of equal opportunities has been at the heart of all educational reforms and the fight against disparities, whether gender or social, has become a political priority. This is one of the stated objectives of the LMD reform (2002-2006) and the Bologna process, enshrined in the Education Code, which has harmonized the organization of higher education at European level.

Yet it is clear that despite the many political reforms, “the successive devices have piled up, gradually losing in effectiveness” ( Ministry of Education, 2015 ). And according to the OECD and its PISA survey (2012), France is also the country where the social environment has the greatest influence on school results.

A hierarchy of sectors

First of all, in terms of access to the different paths of higher education, and in particular to so-called “prestigious” sectors, there are notable differences between students and students, depending on their social background. The various reforms did not sufficiently take into account the differences in resources between the mass of undergraduate students and the small number of favored students in the grandes écoles ( Maurin, 2013 ). Thus, between 1998 and 2010 , it can be seen that middle school children are still twice as likely as children of workers to attend a preparatory class at the Grandes Ecoles rather than a university education.

Then, these inequalities observed at the enrollment stage are found in the type of diploma obtained. Thus, despite the opening of schools to girls in the 1970s, engineering schools now have only a quarter of girls. In 2010 boys were 2.5 times more likely to graduate from an engineering school than from a business school.

In general, strong inequalities still mark French higher education. The bac possessed, whether or not to have a year in advance, and the specialties followed in high school remain differentiating factors in terms of orientation. But, beyond these educational inequalities, it is still and above all the gender inequalities, the social inequalities and the cultural inequalities which persist.

The comparison between the fate of the generation that left higher education in 1992 and the one that graduated in 2004 shows that so-called “unfair” inequalities (ie inequalities due to factors that the individual can not control as his sex or social background, unlike his school performance over which he has a minimum of control) have not declined.

Indeed, despite the introduction of the LMD reform and the stated objectives of fairness, it appears that to qualify for long studies, it is better to be a cadre son than a worker girl …

A cumulative effect

Unfortunately, inequalities tend to accumulate. When profiling students who are pursuing or stopping their studies, it is clear from the beginning of their course in higher education that educational inequalities and social and gender inequalities are cumulative. This phenomenon emphasizes that the school, not only does not correct inequalities, but rather amplifies them, implying what is commonly called a “Mathieu effect” (mechanism by which individuals from privileged backgrounds will tend to increase their advantage over other individuals).

As the individual progresses in their schooling, school and social inequalities aggregate their effects – positive or negative – and thus determine profiles – favorable and unfavorable – to the success of individuals.

With the LMD reform only the diplomas of Bac +3, Bac +5 and Bac +8 (License-Master-Doctorate) are recognized; the bac + 4 level (formerly the master’s degree) is no longer a diploma. Thus, more individuals, whatever their origin, continue their studies beyond this level: in 1998, 12.6% of students stopped their studies after the fourth year and 15% after the fifth year; in 2010, these rates are 5.7% and 26.1%. A progress ? In fact, by increasing the duration of studies leading to the first recognized diploma – the license – on the one hand, and the cost of studies afterwards, this reform has contributed to increasing social inequalities.

The comparison of long-term study profiles between 1998 and 2007 underlines, on the one hand, the persistence of favorable and unfavorable profiles for the pursuit of studies and, on the other hand, the persistence of the cumulative effects of inequalities while along with higher education. Remedies remain to be found …

Author Bio: Magali Jaoul-Grammare is a CNRS Researcher in Economics at the University of Strasbourg