Studying discrimination in higher education in France: what are the challenges?


The field of higher education and research (ESR) in France is now beginning to be well analyzed from the angle of social inequalities and their evolution in general. It is noticeably less so from the standpoint of discrimination – an issue that is the subject of ambiguous institutional recognition, and a scientific evaluation that is still in its infancy. Political recognition, scientific knowledge and public action are thus to be built simultaneously on a major question, but one which has so far remained dormant.

Get out of the blur, name the problem

Politically, the issue of discrimination in higher education is slowly being recognized. In 1998, the new “state priority” to fight against racial discrimination, initiated by the left, did not seem to concern ESR. After the return to business of the right, in 2002, the question gradually fades in favor of the theme of “equal opportunities”, reduced to elitist devices for access to high schools. Then in 2008, it was under the watchword of “diversity” that the report commissioned by the ministry from Michel Wieviorkareintroduces this question. This report points to “systemic discrimination and the mechanisms that come close to it”, while posing, without further investigation (since at this date there is no scientific work on this question in France), that the ” concrete racism” would take place mainly “around” studies (access to employment, housing, etc.).

In January 2015, in response to the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, at the same time as it reflects President François Hollande’s vague commitment to make “the fight against racism and anti-Semitism a major national cause” (December 2014), the “Great mobilization of the School for the values ​​of the Republic” announces the objective of “better training teachers in higher education in the issues of secularism, the fight against discrimination, racism and anti-Semitism” .

In the announcements of January 22, 2015 , the Ministry of National Education, Research and Innovation provides for the creation of “secularism” referents at school, and “racism and anti-Semitism” referents at university. If the Observatory of secularism advocates in December 2015 the “establishment of a secularism referent in each university”, it is ultimately the second terminology that will prevail in higher education and research. This objective was reaffirmed in March 2018 by the Prime Minister in the presentation of his plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism.

On the other hand, the government’s concern for professional equality in the civil service grew during the 2000s. This is evidenced by the adoption of a new reference framework for public action, the integrated approach to gender, which led to the widest dissemination of quantified data to document the unequal situations between women and men, or even the creation of “missions” in charge of women’s rights in various institutions. Following the first commitments of the Conference of University Presidents (now France Universities ) in 2009, the 2013 law requires universities to appoint a person in charge of equality issues, in connection with an objective of exemplary public employers. The issue of gender-based and sexual violence quickly entered the agenda of project managers, and the first initiatives were born.

In 2017, the #MeToo movement gave visibility to this issue of gender-based and sexual violence in the ESR and, in the wake of this movement, the Student Observatory of Sexual and Gender -Based Violence emerged , which published its first report in 2020. Twenty years after the birth of the Collective against sexual harassment in higher education , the establishment of reception and listening cells to fight against sexist and sexual violence has been announced. As for the “Plan to fight against discrimination against LGBT+ people in the ESR” (2019), it leads to a “Guide to fight against hatred and anti-LGBT+ discrimination” .

“Secularism”, “sexist and sexual violence”, “racism and anti-Semitism”, “hate”, or even “politics of inclusion” concerning disability, so many distinct institutional issues and whose link with discrimination is not put forward… despite a ministerial speech promoting a “resolute policy in the fight against all forms of discrimination” . The emergence of a ministerial discourse on the theme of discrimination, in the ESR, was therefore not accompanied by a problematization. It has also not translated into a significant increase in knowledge, to the point that in many respects we are dealing with public action without public problem .

Get out of the compartmentalization, understand the articulations

In ESR in particular, discrimination represents a largely underestimated reality , due to fragmentary and dispersed research. Knowledge about the experience of sexism at university has certainly progressed significantly in recent years, thanks to surveys such as Virage-Universities . But the different social relationships are unequally considered: racial discrimination is much less documented – as shown by the symposium “Racisme et discrimination raciale, de l’école à l’université” , at Paris Diderot in September 2018 – as well as LGBTphobic or validist discrimination.

Even more than research, public action (re)produces compartmentalization and hierarchization. Policies are historically constructed in “silos”: “gender equality” and actions on “sexist and sexual violence” coexist without encountering “disability relays”, to which are added “referents racism and anti-Semitism”. The Civil Service Transformation Act of 2019certainly obliges the institutions under the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation to draw up and implement a multi-year action plan relating to professional equality between women and men, and mentions also the “fight against discrimination”, “diversity” and “handicap”. However, the principle of unification through action plans may only be a communication exercise prolonging the lack of articulation of causes and transversal problematization, particularly in terms of discrimination.

As noted by the Permanent Commission of Equality Project Managers (CPED), while some establishments have developed cross-cutting “equality-diversity missions”, “few establishments have appointed people in charge of discrimination” ( Prevention Kit Discrimination in Higher Education , December 2021, p. 11). More fundamentally, the principle of dealing with the problem by establishing mainly symbolic “missions” raises the question of the real means of action, at the risk of being, as for racism, only a “ministerial cosmetic” .

Moreover, the question of socio-economic inequalities is always dealt with on another level and is hardly articulated with the other systems of domination or approached from the angle of discrimination. This situation maintains de facto competition between the various causes and feeds the belief that, if social inequalities are issues of economic and material redistribution, other inequalities (gender, ethnicity, etc.) are above all issues of recognition. identity and symbolism. However, the problem of discrimination is at a point of knot between these two levels of stakes: by focusing on the material dimension of unequal treatment, it shows mechanisms – direct and indirect –

In this sense, we can emphasize the effort of the National Observatory of Student Life (OVE) to increasingly take into account, in its surveys on living conditions , the perception of discrimination . We must also welcome the recent release of several studies, attesting to the multiple experience of discrimination experienced by students, or discrimination in the selection at the start of training.. However, it is regrettable that the approach to the phenomenon, focused on the students, leaves at the same time in the shade the way in which discrimination crosses and structures the working relationships within the ESR, which which risks reproducing a rift between university staff and public, between place of study and place of work.

Simultaneous issues of knowledge, recognition and action

In this context of insufficient knowledge of the issues, higher education establishments have been under increasing pressure for several years to carry out diagnoses in terms of inequalities. Some have anticipated these ministerial obligations, as Pascal Tisserant has pointed out here , and, mobilizing internal research resources, have seized the opportunity to carry out studies aimed at evaluating the perception or experience of discrimination. Other establishments respond to the injunction by commissioning consulting firms or polling institutes to carry out surveys of dubious scientific rigor (in particular without any control of respondents or weighting of results).

For their part, student associations and unions are multiplying initiatives for surveys on the experience of users (and sometimes staff) of universities, calls for testimonials or documentaries. They thus show the need for knowledge in this area, but also the fact that they did not wait for researchers to advance the (re)knowledge of the problem on their own scale. We can cite, for illustration, the survey commissioned by the Union of Jewish Students of France on “The view of Jewish students on anti-Semitism” (2019), the survey of the National Union of Students of France (UNEF) on “discrimination in higher education” (2020), the Caélif Étudiant·e·s LGBT barometer on “LGBT-phobias in higher education in France” (2020).“give even more echo to those who denounce this violence, and allow a broad discussion” . On social networks, many student groups also offer calls for testimonials.

(Getting) to talk (about) the experience of discrimination is thus as much a lever for constituting a public problem as a way of articulating knowledge and recognition of the problem. As other major national surveys have shown (such as Trajectories and Origins [TeO] or Violence and Gender Relations [Virage]), it is at the same time a means of analyzing the way in which oppressive systems operate and how they become embedded in educational institutions or in workplaces.

It is in this perspective that we launched the ACADISCRI survey . Its objective is to systematically measure and analyze the experience of discrimination experienced by both students and ESR staff. It offers weighted results, representative of the populations of the participating establishments. The survey simultaneously and crosswise takes into account the major social relations (sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, social class, disability and state of health, etc.), and aims to be able to better understand the articulation between these different systems of domination.

Author Bios: Romane Blassel is a Post-doctoral fellow at the University Côte d’Azur, Camille Gillet is a PhD student in sociology at Sorbonne University, Fabrice Dhumé is an Independent sociologist, associated with URMIS, affiliated with IC Migrations at Paris Cité University, Pierre-Olivier Weiss is a Post-doctoral fellow in sociology at the Université Côte d’Azur and Tana Bao is a Post-doctoral student for Acadiscri attached to Urmis at Côte d’Azur University