UN ‘concerned’ about inequality in French higher education

Country must address socio-economic and regional inequalities, UN committee advises

November 17, 2023
Richelieu National Library, France
Source: iStock

A United Nations body has called on France to improve access to higher education, citing obstacles faced by students from lower socio-economic backgrounds as well as those from regions with limited higher education opportunities.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) investigated the right to higher education in France as part of a periodic review. In a concluding report, the committee also raises concerns about a decline in the budget allocated to each student, advising a budget review “with a view to gradually establishing free education”.

The report, published in French, recommends that “the state party deploy the necessary means to make higher education accessible to all on a fully equal basis”.

Ahead of the CESCR review, which assessed France’s compliance with the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Right to Education Initiative (RTE), Fédération des Associations Générales Etudiantes (FAGE) and the Global Student Forum (GSF) submitted a report to the committee.

Drawing on a research project by RTE and students from the Sciences Po Law School Clinic, the report highlights a six-year decline in national expenditure per student due to the rise in enrolment rates outstripping the increase in state funding.

The report also flags the “uneven distribution of higher education institutions in France”, noting a concentration around Paris and other major cities, as well as the differentiation between prestigious grandes écoles and other universities as causes of inequality.

High tuition fees for specialised institutions, including grandes écoles, alongside indirect costs such as housing and transportation expenses, further disadvantages students from poorer backgrounds. Moreover, the “privatisation and commodification of the French higher education system” resulted in “pervasive consequences in access to and quality of education”, the report says.

RTE welcomed CESCR’s conclusions, with executive director Delphine Dorsi in a statement calling the recommendations “a major step forward for the right to higher education in France”.


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