Higher education in France: Why territorial inequalities matter

Ana Clara Cathalat @anacathalat
26 Mai 2020

Since 2018, the Right to Education Initiative has partnered with the Human Rights Clinic of the Sciences Po Law School to monitor and advocate for equal access to higher education in France using RTE’s monitoring guide. We produced a report and a policy brief  and raised awareness on the issue to a wide range of actors in various fora, including at the Colloquium on inequalities in higher education held in Montpellier, France in March 2020.

Julie may be a fictional character, but her reality reflects that of many French students wishing to go to university and build their career.

When a student needs to choose which university to study at, cost is one of the most relevant criteria. The economic perspective of this decision involves how much this student and his or her family will have to pay for education, as well as the financial outcomes after graduating from a specific institution and course.

Higher education in France is polarized around key cities constantly attracting students given the wide variety of courses, tracks, and employment opportunities.

  • In 2018, Île-de-France (Paris area) had more than a quarter (26.3%) of all students in higher education in the whole country. 

  • More than 80% of students in Paris were not originally from the region in 2017.

  • Grandes écoles, which lead to higher average salaries and higher employability rates post-graduation, are concentrated in certain areas of the country, notably in Île-de-France.

Having fewer opportunities in their own region, many students are forced to move to these poles in order to pursue their desired studies. However, because of disparities in standards of living and family income across French regions, students from underprivileged areas in terms of higher education have several financial difficulties. Besides bearing the costs of moving in itself, students going to an educational center carry a heavy financial burden because of the higher standards of living of these zones and the profound disparities compared with all other corners of the country.
  • One month of rent in Paris (873€) pays two and a half months of rent in Le Mans (340€) (a smaller city 210 km from Paris). In Île-de-France, the average student rent is about two times more expensive than most regions of the country.

  • The student rate for public transportation varies in 252€ yearly besides the additional cost to go back home for holidays, which is at least 50€, the average one-way SNCF train ticket, although the prices increase the greater the distance.

  • The living standard gap between the highest and the lowest living standards averages in the country is 533€, more than one third of the minimum wage. 

Under national and international law, France has legal obligations to realize the right to higher education equally to all students regardless of one’s place of origin. Nevertheless, the French government doesn’t take enough into account the geographical disparities such as the differences in living standards of different regions when providing financial aid to students. As such, these territorial inequalities strongly impact on students’ access to higher education, affecting different social classes in diverse ways. In some cases, families can afford these costs but are put in a vulnerable situation because of that. In others, students have to work, balancing extended shifts in several jobs and their student obligations. Finally, students may also choose to pursue a program at home and not to follow their professional aspirations. This is alarming when it comes to students that wanted to study at a grand école, which lead to higher salaries and higher employability rates post-graduation. 

Despite the lack of governmental data based on students’ place of origin, there is enough evidence to prove that this is a reality to many students and that the government is not doing enough to tackle this problem. Students will continue to be prevented from fulfilling their full potential without financial aid to address these inequalities, or measures to develop opportunities in different regions more equally. 

We shared our findings with several actors, such as researchers, student unions, NGOs and state representatives, and received positive responses. Their interest is encouraging and essential to achieve an impact. Your endorsement is, too, vital to this project. Learn more about the issue and France’s obligations in the report “Limited Potential: The right to higher education in France - Impact of place of origin and of cost on inequality” and endorse the policy brief “The impact of place of origin on inequalities in higher education in France” with associations, student unions and state representatives. 

All the information in this post was taken from the report and policy brief cited above. 


Ana Clara Cathalat is a student at Sciences-Po studying for a master's in “Human Rights and Humanitarian Action”. She was part of the Sciences Po Law School Clinic’s Human Rights, Economic Development and Globalization (HEDG) programme from 2019-2020.

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.