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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Piketty -- Education: we could do better

Parcoursup: could do better

Thomas Pikety

All societies need a grand narrative to justify their inequalities. In contemporary societies, the focus is on the meritocratic narrative. Modern inequality is just because it is the outcome of a process which is freely chosen in which each individual has the same opportunities. The problem is that there is a yawning gap between the official meritocratic declarations and the reality.

In the United States, the chances of acceding to higher education are almost entirely determined by the income of one's parents; barely 20% for the poorest 10%, and over 90% for the richest 10%. We should moreover make it clear that we are in no way talking of the same higher education in the two cases. Possibly, the situation is not quite as extreme in France. But the truth is that we do not really know because it is impossible to access the same data.

In this type of context, the reform of the student university entry admission system with the move from the APB (or 'admission post baccalauréat') to the 'Parcoursup' plaform is potentially very promising. Unfortunately, it is to be feared that all this will only reinforce the inequality and opacity of the system.

It should be said at the outset that taking into account the marks, the tracks and the student records in the university entrance admission procedure (the main innovation in Parcoursup) is not necessarily a bad thing as such. Given that marks have always been taken into consideration for admission to the preparatory classes for the grandes écoles (both in the former APB system and in the new Parcoursup), which nobody seems to quarrel with, it is not clear why they should not play a role in university admission. True, the marks are not always just and the marking system needs to be re-thought. But they do nevertheless contain some useful information, a priori rather more than the random drawing of lots used to date (hopefully).

To address the obvious risk of a drift towards inequality and the academic hyper-stratification of such a system two conditions must however be fulfilled. In the first instance, the means invested must enable each student with a baccalaureat to have access to quality education. This is all the more urgent as the French system is characterised by a particularly extreme and hypocritical form of dualism: on the one hand we have selective sectors which are richly endowed (the preparatory classes and the grandes écoles) and on the other, universities which have been neglected and in which massive investment is required. Unfortunately the government has chosen to prolong the decline in public investment observed since 2008, and to devote all the available resources to reducing the taxes of the better off. One should keep in mind that budget per student has fallen by 10% in ten years and the 5 billion Euros in tax gifts to the richest would have enabled a 40% increase in the per capita expenditure.

Over and above the question of the means, taking marks into account must imperatively be moderated by other criteria; this poses basic questions which to date have not been resolved. The law, adopted at its first reading in the National Assembly, stipulates that in each higher-education track (both the universities and in the preparatory classes) there must be a minimal percentage of low-income students. In other words, for the same marks, a state-aided holder of the baccalaureat (élèves boursiers, i.e. roughly 20% of secondary school students) could be accepted while another whose parental income is slightly higher than threshold level will be refused. The idea is not necessarily bad in itself, though it would undoubtedly have been preferable to limit the threshold effect by using a points system taking account in a more continuous and gradual fashion of family origin (as is the case in some of the Indian universities).

In any event, the problem is that the way in which this potentially explosive system will be set up in Parcoursup remains totally obscure. The law states that the percentage of low-income student per academic track will be fixed 'by the academic authorities' (therefore, the rector) by taking into consideration "the relation between the number of state-aided students and the total number of candidates" but also "in conjunction and negociation with the heads of the establishments concerned", with no further details. It has been announced on countless occasions that the source code of Parcoursup will be made available to the public in its entirety (as, moreover, the previous government had announced) but no date has been fixed. Secondary school students have until 13 March to choose their preferred tracks. Will the rules of the game be made public before this date, or afterwards? Nobody knows.

The law also stipulates that the "best pupils in each stream in each school will have priority access to all the courses" (in particular the preparatory classes for the grandes écoles). But there again, we have no further information: "the percentage of secondary school students who will have the right to benefit from this priority access will be fixed by decree". In reality, this is simply a reworking of an article adopted in 2013 which in practice was applied in a totally opaque and purely symbolic manner at the very end of the allocation process, in the context of the final last chances provided for in the system (therefore much too late for the secondary pupils concerned to genuinely benefit from them). Has any consideration been given to revealing the source code intended for the application of this article to secondary school pupils in the Parcoursup procedure, and if so at what date? It's something of a mystery.

Let's be clear: these are complex questions which no country has resolved in a totally satisfactory manner. But once the government states a policy of transparency it cannot afford to maintain such an opaque process, all this plus inequality and austerity in addition for the less well off.

(the figure at the beginning of this article is taken from the works of Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez and their co-authors: see The Equality of Opportunity Project)

John Case
Harpers Ferry, WV

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