Sarkozy gets tough with elite schools

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The French president says he will ‘resort to other means’ if talks between his ministers and directors of the elite colleges fail.

Paris – French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday threatened to take steps to force France's elite schools of higher education to admit more students from low-income families and minorities.

The grandes ecoles institutes are balking at a government plan to set aside 30 percent of new admissions for candidates who receive student aid.

"The grandes ecoles are not reserved for a few insiders, or the children of the old bourgeoisie," Sarkozy said in an address in Gif-sur-Yvette, in the southwest suburbs of Paris.

"These schools are for everyone, as long as you work, as long as you have talent."

Sarkozy tasked his ministers for national education and higher education along with the commissioner for equal opportunity to hold talks with the directors of the elite colleges to seek solutions.

"I expect concrete and quick results. If we get them, then dialogue will have been enough. If we do not get them, we will have to resort to other means," he warned, without elaborating.

France's 220 elite schools such as engineering institute Ecole Polytechnique have been accused of catering to the country's well-heeled, whose sons and daughters have access to the best venues to prepare for the entrance exams.

Sarkozy announced in late 2008 a plan to set aside 30 percent of places in so-called preparatory classes for the entrance exams for poor students, many of whom hail from the high-immigrant suburbs.

That goal was reached in September, but the government now wants the top schools to go one step further and set aside 30 percent of first-year places to scholarship students.

Sarkozy argued that the 30-percent target was not tantamount to an admissions quota and urged the schools to reconsider their selection process, by allowing entry through other channels than a written exam.

Contrary to French universities that do not apply selection criteria to candidates, the grandes ecoles take in students based on the entrance exam.

Between 10 and 14 percent of students at the most prestigious schools such as Polytechnique and business school Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC) are from poor backgrounds, according to government figures.

France is home to one of Europe's biggest Arab and black minorities, but is overwhelmingly ruled by a white establishment while unemployment is at its highest in immigrant suburbs.

AFP / Expatica

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