Over the past several decades, more and more young people in France have been able to access higher education. In 1960, 310,000 students were enrolled in higher education. Fast forward a half century and the number multiplied by more than eight, reaching 2,551,000 by 2015. In absolute terms, progress appears evident. Yet, in relative terms, children from disadvantaged backgrounds remain underrepresented in France?s higher education system. For example, 10.8 per cent of university students have parents who are workers, while 30 per cent have parents who hold managerial positions or who perform a higher intellectual profession. The gap is even more striking in the most prestigious schools, where the figures are 2.7 per cent and 53.2 per cent respectively. And yet, workers account for nearly a fifth of the French population.
Student inequity in higher education is also a global issue, which has become more severe alongside issues of educational affordability. Indeed, the costs of higher education are increasingly shouldered by households. On average, in European countries, 15 per cent of the cost of higher education is paid by households, whereas outside Europe, households cover between 40 to 50 per cent, as revealed in the recent UNESCO GEM Report and IIEP Policy Paper ?Six ways to ensure higher education leave no one behind.?
However, initiatives to tackle inequity are emerging. In France, Pierre Mathiot, the Director of Sciences Po Lille in Northern France, who was a key speaker at the IIEP Strategic Debate, founded the Integrated Studies Program (PEI in French) in 2007. To date, PEI has helped prepare 3,200 students from modest backgrounds for higher education. The approach includes tutorials organized by university students who supervise high school students for four years, university visits and the establishment of local partnerships between universities, schools and associations. For Mathiot, information needs to be provided to high school students, as well as their sense of legitimacy and self-confidence reinforced.
IIEP second 2017 Strategic Debate was devoted to this issue and its message was clear: it is possible to strengthen equity between students in higher education. Initiatives such as the PEI demonstrate this. With a "bottom-up" approach ?based on field experiences ?states can tailor decision-making to local contexts. However, it is important to remember to continue to collect data, including qualitative assessments, to have a clearer, more reliable picture of equity in higher education.