Threatened by inequalities: the right to higher education in France

Juliana Lima
30 Mai 2022

On 10 May, we held a roundtable discussion with French State representatives and the academic community on the right to higher education in France, to discuss the issues of territorial inequalities and privatisation. Students from the Sciences Po Law School Clinic who have been collaborating with RTE presented details from their research and work with us over the 2021-2 academic year.  Audrey Bergassoli, Margaret Harris et Hicham Touili-Idrissi, students from the Sciences Po Law School Clinic who were awarded the Anthony Mainguené prize for their joint study with RTE on inequalities in higher education, presented the main conclusions of their research. They also presented research developed by Thibaut Lauwerier, from the Francophone Research Network on the Privatisation of Education. Claire Calvel and Victor Chareyon, master’s students at ENS Paris-Saclay who have collaborated with RTE over the past year on issues relating to the financing of higher education, also presented the results of their study demonstrating the effects of budget allocation and distribution on the right to equal and non-discriminatory access to quality education for all. 

The following discussions highlight the most salient aspects of the conversations held, and sythesise significant details from the students' presentations and research. 

Inequalities caused by the higher education system intersect with socio-economic and territorial inequalities affecting the right to equal access to quality education for all

Student enrolment in higher education has increased significantly in France over the past ten years but social and territorial inequalities persist and intersect, hindering the right to equal access to quality higher education for all. While higher education institutions are generally available across the country, some regions offer a variety of institutions (private/public) and higher education programmes whilst others have a limited number of options. There is a disproportionate concentration of quality and specialised institutions in urban areas, mostly around Paris and Lyon. This engenders a high student mobility rate: the study shows that less than 20% of Parisian students are from the city or its immediate surroundings/suburbs. 

The need to relocate to be able to access higher education represents an increase in the overall costs of higher education for students, due to indirect costs such as housing and transportation. These are disproportionately affected by territorial inequalities and the difference in the cost of living across French regions, especially considering French overseas territories. The research thus concludes that the place of origin/residence of a student influences their chances of accessing higher education. Indeed, economically disadvantaged students from regions lacking higher educational institutions have the hardest time accessing higher education and consequently improving their life prospects, further increasing regional vulnerabilities. This also implies that students living in remote regions who have economic means are more likely to overcome these barriers than students who don’t, as they will have more financial resources to move to a region offering a wider range of higher education choices. Indeed, the share of 18–24-year-olds with access to higher education increases sharply with parental income: in the bottom quintile of parental income distribution (P0-P20), approximately 35% of individuals aged 18 to 24 are or have been students, and this percentage is nearly three times higher in the top decile (about 90%).


System-induced inequalities

  • Concentration of quality and specialised institutions in urban areas and unequal distribution of public/private universities throughout the country

  • Vertical stratification: social value attributed to diplomas from selective and prestigious schools

Socio-economic inequalities

  • Overrepresentation of high-income family students in enrollment rates, especially in the most prestigious and selective higher education institutions and in the private sector

Territorial inequalities

  • The place of origin/residence of students has an impact on the conditions of access to higher education

  • Student mobility induces indirect costs (i.e. housing and transportation) increasing the overall budget of higher education for students


The Covid-19 pandemic has increased social and territorial inequalities, hindering the full realisation of the right to higher education 

The research shows that students from lower middle-income families and students living in rural areas faced greater challenges to keep up with online courses as some were not materially equipped to shift to digital learning and/or did not dispose of good access to internet. The study also highlighted the material and mental health implications of the global pandemic in students' learning processes, which have been explored in a series of blogs published by RTE in 2021

The roundtable discussions recalled that the pandemic resulted in the increased presence of private educational technology (EdTech) companies in the education sector, which raises questions not only relating to data privacy but also the quality of digital education. This calls attention  to the importance of regulating the EdTech market. The increasingly close relationship between Ed Tech companies and the French government was pointed out as of particular concern. Relations between the Directorate for Digital Education - which is attached to the French Ministry of National Education - and EdTech companies must be closely monitored to avoid private, market-driven strategies being transformed into education policies.


Privatisation of higher education perpetuates – and deepens – inequalities in access and participation in higher education


Enrolment in private higher education in France has doubled over the past 20 years. As of today, one in every five higher education students in France is enrolled in the private sector, despite an important rise in tuition fees, which have  increased 75% on average between 2009 and 2019, particularly in private French business and management higher education institutions. Moreover, most of the prestige diplomas resulting in higher employability rates and salaries are concentrated in the hands of French ‘Grand Écoles’ (elite and mostly private institutions) that are not accessible to lower income families. In the top 10%of selective schools, children of blue collar working families or whose parents are unemployed represent only 5% of the total student cohort, whilst children from higher socio-professional categories account for almost 80% of the student body. As we can see, privatisation not only perpetuates but also deepens social and territorial inequalities. 

To this matter, the researcher Christine Musselin has called attention to the expansion of the private higher education sector in geographical areas where the public sector is absent or barely present, raising questions as to what extent the private sector has been taken as a substitute for public higher education. Another concern is how private institutions receive public funding, in the form of public subsidy. There is a need to better regulate and monitor the relationship of the private and the public sector, to ensure that public investment is not benefiting for profit institutions. 


The global dynamics of privatisation: impact on French higher education 

At a global level, the public higher education sector has been struggling to adapt to changes in the labour market and to engage in programs that respond to transformations in the society and private higher education institutions are trying to fill in this gap. Moreover, international competition based on university rankings accelerates the privatisation and commodification of higher education while at the same time affecting how states allocate their higher education budget. Indeed, the share of public funding to higher education in France has decreased from 73.1% in 2010 to 70.3% in 2019 whereas the share of private investment has increased: private companies share of investment in higher education has risen from 7.8% in 2010 to 9.6% in 2019, and household budget expenditure in higher education has increased 1.4% in the same period.


The repercussion of financial resources and budget allocation choices on inequalities

France’s investment in higher education is slightly above the other OECD member countries (1.5% GDP against 1.4% on average OECD, since 2017).  However, the increase in enrolment rates (+10.2% between 2013 and 2019) has not been compensated by an increase in total expenditure (+1.2% for the same period). As a result, public expenditure per student has declined, representing a threat to quality education for all.  Moreover, the higher education budget is disproportionately distributed to prestigious higher education institutions which most often welcome students from privileged socio-economic backgrounds. 

This conclusion calls into question the effectiveness of budget allocation in terms of social justice: public investment has benefited those who are enrolled in the longest and most expensive programs. Moreover, the State spends, on average,around €20,000 for the entire tertiary cycle of a young person from wealthy backgrounds, compared to less than €10,000 for students belonging to lower social classes. 




While France ensures more accessible and inclusive higher education than some of its European counterparts, its higher education system is nevertheless aligned with global trends threatening the right to higher education, such as a decline in public funding, increasing tuition fees and the privatisation of the higher education sector. Socio-economic and territorial inequalities intersect and still represent a major challenge for equal access and participation in higher education in France.

Watch the event recording here (in French)



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Juliana Lima has a legal background and holds a PhD in Political Science. She has been collaborating with RTE on issues regarding education in emergencies and higher education.

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