Student grants: how to correct the inequalities of the French system?


Money cost saving for goal and success in school, education concept : US dollar bills / cash in burlap bags, a black graduation cap or hat, a certificate / diploma and a book on basic balance scale.

Money cost saving for goal and success in school, education concept : US dollar bills / cash in burlap bags, a black graduation cap or hat, a certificate / diploma and a book on basic balance scale.

Exceptionally, perhaps unprecedented, the number of scholarship students fell by 3.9% in French higher education in 2021-2022. Sign, again that in France, this system responsible for allowing access to higher education for the working classes is at the end of its rope, struggling to fill the inequalities it is supposed to correct?

It should be noted that the scholarships concern 650,000 people, ie 4 out of 10 young people enrolled in public establishments (and nearly 70,000 in the private sector, which is growing rapidly) for a total of 2.4 billion euros. Scholarship holders are mainly concentrated in less prestigious sectors, less dynamic territories and establishments left behind in the race for international rankings of “excellence”. Let us recall, in comparison, that with the additional tax half granted to parents of children enrolled in higher education, very well-off people also benefit from financial aid for studies: with this system , the wealthiest families receive 1.7 billion euros each year.

We can therefore wonder about the truly redistributive nature of this system, especially since it struggles to sufficiently help the poorest: even at the highest level (which concerns young people who cannot count on any support financial institution), the scholarship remains below €600 per month, very far from the poverty line (€1063), even after the 4% revaluation decided for the start of the 2022 school year and supposed to compensate for inflation.

Scholarship rate

More pernicious, the scholarship system has become a tool of political communication since 2007 and the mandate of Valérie Pécresse under Nicolas Sarkozy: rather than focusing on the access of children from the working classes to prestigious establishments, it is the rate of scholarship holders which has become the central indicator of social openness. The number of scholarship holders has indeed increased rapidly during this five-year period, rising from 495,000 to 647,000, an increase of more than 31%.

It is that a new level, level 0, had been added, giving the right to a scholarship of… 0 euros but allowing to be exempted from university registration fees – which ultimately only represents support from 10 to 20€ per month, registration for a bachelor’s degree being set at 170 euros per month, for a master’s at 243 euros per month.

When it was introduced in 2007, level 0 brought together 9% of scholarship holders, it rose to 21% in 2011. To get out of this too obvious make-up of figures, level 0 disappeared during the Hollande mandate, absorbed into the higher level, but not really level 1 (€180 per month) rather a half level introduced just before, level 0bis at €100 per month: we understand the urgency of clarifying the system! This minimum level includes almost a third of scholarship holders .

In addition, with the charging point mechanism allowing the number of brothers and sisters to be taken into account as well as the distance between the parents’ domicile and the establishment of registration, the scholarships are also awarded to children from the middle classes. One can thus be a scholarship holder with parents declaring up to €95,000 annually.

Discussions are open at the Ministry of Higher Education to develop the scholarship system. This is at least what was announced at the end of September during the back-to-school press conference of the Ministry of Higher Education. But no envelope is planned for 2023, according to the blue budget , the document which specifies public funding, which casts doubt on the will to succeed soon, despite the glaring urgency of student precariousness , particularly visible during the Covid with the queues for food aid, unfortunately still very real.

Two funding models

In the perspective of the upcoming debate, the nature of the support that will be granted to students will say a lot about the conception that the government has of education and the path in which our higher education system will go. In fact, the prospects offered to us refer to two different conceptions of its financing:

  • The first is that of an education conceived above all as an investment, in the pure tradition of the theory of human capital, dear to authors such as Gary Becker . In this context, the student is the main beneficiary of studies and studies have value only through the monetary gains they generate for the individual. We therefore understand that they can only be logically chosen according to the return on investment expected by the student and him alone, motivated by the sole lure of gain;
  • Radically different, a second conception considers that studies form first of all a collective investment whose benefits are essentially social. From this perspective, it seems natural that citizens who have benefited from access to studies contribute to society through their activities, as well as by paying taxes, the contributory faculties of graduates being generally higher.

These two perspectives are found in broad outline respectively in the Anglo-Saxon higher education model and in the model of the countries of Northern Europe: in England, the United States or Australia, tuition fees are close to (or exceed sometimes briskly) the 10,000 euros per year of study. These high fees are in no way contradictory with scholarships: to ensure a little social openness, scholarships can be granted to some students to help them… pay part of these registration fees. Nevertheless, with or without a scholarship, students are pushed into debt, at the same time as they construct strategies for making this investment profitable, through the choice of courses taken and their professional outlets.

Are we going to lean towards a capitalization model, radically individualistic? Shutterstock

This results in multiple adverse effects. The debt that weighs on the lives of young working people can lead them to choices that are not very useful socially, so much so that, faced with such effects, the faculty of medicine of the very prestigious New York University decided in 2018 to making studies that had hitherto been very expensive free of charge: the choice of specialties can now be made more according to medical needs than loan repayment issues. This issue of debt has become a financial issue in the United States – undermined by more than 1600 billion euros in outstanding debt – and political – with the recent and historic cancellation of student debt by Joe Biden.

In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon model, in Denmark, studies are free and all students receive an autonomy allowance that can reach around 800 euros, if the student does not live with their parents.

The possibility of a universal allowance?

By asking the question of the financing of studies, the French government is pushing us to choose between these two paths, between these two conceptions of education and, basically, between two social models: that of an education by capitalization, radically individualistic, or that of an education by distribution, fundamentally socialized. It is also to choose between a vision of studies as a prolonged childhood, during which one remains dependent on one’s parents, or an entry into an autonomy allowed by a united society.

It is to be feared, reading President Macron’s advisers and analyzing the political choices of the last five years, that the Anglo-Saxon option is the one favored by the government. Some tactical efforts are to be expected from the executive to get the pill of such a choice: in England already, scholarships – Maintenance grants .) – had been created for deserving students from working-class backgrounds, at the same time as a system of “loans with conditional repayment” was instituted. Since 2016, these scholarships have disappeared in favor of only loans…

There is, however, another possible path for our education system: that which would consist in returning to the fundamentals of the preamble to the constitution establishing free education, and to the fundamentals of our social insurance model by creating, as in Denmark, a universal autonomy allowance. Such an allowance could be financed by the extension of contributions relating to a branch of social security or by a progressive tax. It would constitute a form of intergenerational solidarity, like pensions, but aimed at the younger generations. Its amount could reasonably be 1000 euros per month for students not benefiting from family accommodation and 600 euros per month for others.

By overhauling the current aid system, this choice of society would represent an annual effort of 19 billion euros  : a sum that is certainly significant but likely to contribute to a real overhaul of our social model in accordance with its original values. The President of the Republic wanted proposals for the National Council for Refoundation: here is one!

Author Bios: Hugo Harari-Kermadec is University Professor at the University of Orléans and David Flacher is a Teacher-researcher at the University of Technology of Compiègne (UTC)