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The French Revolution gave birth to les grandes écoles, the elite schools that have dominated France’s higher education landscape ever since – and provided most of its political, business and professional leaders. But some of the French business schools – the grandes écoles de commerce – believe they are on the cusp of another dramatic revolution, sparked in part by the higher education reforms of Nicolas Sarkozy, French president.

Business schools in France have traditionally been part-funded by local chambers of commerce to serve their regions. But recent months have witnessed a flurry of boundary-crossing mergers, partnerships and acquisitions: the merger of Ceram Business School and ESC Lille to create Skema Business School; the Paris Executive Campus, an executive education joint venture between Rouen School of Management and Reims Management School; and the acquisition of the International University of Monaco by Inseec, making Inseec the largest business school group in France, with more than 10,000 students.

Together they represent the biggest changes in the French business school market since 2000, when the Paris Chamber of Commerce forced two schools it funded – ESCP and EAP – to merge and CPA to be absorbed by HEC School of Management.

According to Alice Guilhon, director of Skema, French business schools need more muscle to compete on the international stage but they are also responding to changes in higher education priorities and funding.

“This is a revolution, the beginning of a new age for business schools,” she says. “French business schools were created by local regions but the higher education market is now completely global.”

Mr Sarkozy’s quest to break down social barriers includes plans to reform the parallel French university system, which is comparatively under-resourced, overcrowded and less well regarded by employers.

While other European countries are slashing higher education budgets, France is pumping an extra €1bn ($1.3bn, £845m) a year into its universities. The intention is to grant its 83 universities greater autonomy, giving them more say over finances, personnel and student selection.

But, at the same time, Mr Sarkozy wants the grandes écoles to shed their elitist white, middle class image and improve their record on giving access to students from poorer backgrounds – as much as 30 per cent of their places. To enrol at a grande école, students must also have completed two years of expensive prépa classes, which are themselves difficult to enter. In contrast, any French student who passes the baccalaureate is entitled to a university place.

Earlier this year, there were heated exchanges between government ministers and Pierre Tapie, director of Essec business school and current president of the Conférence des Grandes Écoles, which represents about 220 schools. CGE is opposed to the imposition of quotas or any diminution of entrance exam standards.

The grandes écoles system accounts for about 40 per cent of the masters degrees awarded in France and a third of PhDs, but Mr Tapie says critics are too focused on five or six “highly symbolic” grandes écoles.

“As a whole, we educate a much more diverse group than before and, at the masters level of education, the proportion of low-income students at grandes écoles is exactly the same as at universities,” says Mr Tapie. “I’ve seen data from England where, at the 13 best universities, the percentage of students from low-income families is just 3 per cent. Across all grandes écoles, it is 23 per cent and around 10 per cent to 15 per cent in the most selective ones.”

The government and CGE have since signed a memorandum of understanding, promising to work towards greater access to higher education among low-income families – an agreement, notes Mr Tapie, that universities have yet to sign.

At Essec, Mr Tapie has launched an initiative to mentor and coach 150 high school students over three years, with a view to helping them into the prépa. The programme has been extended nationwide to 7,000 high school students.

What is giving French business schools greater food for thought is the government’s insistence that, in return for the extra funding, universities and grandes écoles must increase their collaboration efforts, on projects such as Operation Campus – the creation of 10 regional mega-campuses that, it is hoped, will act as clusters of excellence that can rival US institutions, including Harvard and MIT.

HEC, for example, is already a partner in the €4.4bn Paris-Saclay Scientific Co-operation Foundation grouping of 20 higher education and research institutions, while Audencia School of Management in Nantes has signed up to the Université Nantes Angers Le Mans grouping of 11 higher education and research establishments in the Pays de la Loire region.

It is an idea that excited the French national newspaper Le Monde sufficiently to call for the grandes écoles to be merged fully into the universities.

However, Mr Tapie says the grandes écoles need not fear the university reforms.

“If it’s for the common good, it’s good for the grandes écoles,” he says. “It’s a chance for us to maintain our excellence. We have been used to competition for decades so we are not afraid of that. I see no plan to benefit universities over grandes écoles.”

However, Olivier Le Fournier, director of the Paris Executive Campus, says he believes the reforms, in tandem with decreasing funding from chambers of commerce, is causing many business schools to review their strategies.

“They need to begin thinking what kind of links is it necessary to have with universities and what will happen if they do those deals,” he says. “I think we will see more mergers like Skema happening. For business schools in France, it could be a tectonic shift.”

Prof Guilhon agrees. “We have not only merged the two business schools but have also attached ourselves to the university in Lille – two strategic moves simultaneously,” she says.

“We will see more mergers and collaboration between business schools and with universities because, with these reforms, chambers of commerce – maybe Paris aside – will not be able to support schools that want to be visible at global level and compete with American and Asian schools.”

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