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The Financial Times Masters in Management ranking might not suggest it, but there is an undercurrent of conflict running through France’s education system.

Les grandes écoles, its highly selective business schools, have been roundly criticised for maintaining admissions policies that effectively exclude candidates from low-income families. Such anachronisms, say detractors, not only invite accusations of elitism, but also shrink the pool of talent from which so many of France’s future leaders will invariably emerge. Nicolas Sarkozy’s government has determined that 30 per cent of grande ecole students should come from underprivileged backgrounds.

While recognising that a problem exists, the schools have vocally rejected any suggestions of a formal quota system for these students. The association that represents France’s 39 business schools, the Conférence des Grandes Ecoles, has argued that easing entrance requirements for certain candidates would lead to a drop in standards, devaluing the reputation of graduates in the eyes of employers.

A poll of 285 graduates of French business schools, conducted by the FT, suggests widespread support for a more inclusive admissions policy. The alumni were asked to state their agreement with the following statements:

S1: French business schools should introduce new policies to increase participation in further education by students from poorer backgrounds;

S2:A quota to set a minimum number of places for students from poorer backgrounds is a good way to improve equality of access to business schools;

S3:Financial support from the government to improve equality of access to business schools should be given directly to students through grants and scholarships rather than paid directly to schools.

The results, summarised on the chart below, showed that two-thirds of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that French business schools should introduce new policies to increase participation in further education by students from poorer backgrounds.

Yet of this group, just 29 per cent agreed that quotas conditional on family income would be a good way to achieve this goal. Across the entire cohort, that figure dropped another 6 percentage points.

But if not by quotas, how else might business schools open up to candidates from less affluent backgrounds? Those surveyed reacted more favourably to the prospect of grants and scholarships: nearly 70 per cent thought that financial support should be given directly to poorer students.

Responses to all questions showed consistency across the sample, regardless of respondents’ gender or the fees charged at their business schools.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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