How Sarkozy is forcing reform on a reluctant establishment

France lags behind other countries in the league tables, which is why the President is calling for change.

Times are changing for the grandes écoles, the Ivy League of French higher education. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who did not attend one, wants the system reformed, arguing that a nation training its elite from only the top 10 per cent of the population is depriving itself of the talents of 90 per cent of its young people.

These "great schools", have been asked to widen their social mix and take students from less privileged backgrounds. The suggestion has led to stormy negotiations between Valérie Pécresse, the minister for higher education, and the Conférence des Grandes Ecoles (CGE), the body representing the elite schools. The CGE has accused the government of imposing "quotas", which it implied would lower standards. But it still signed an agreement in January fixing an "objective" for each school to recruit 30 per cent of students receiving state grants, compared with the previous 10 to 15 per cent. At the same time, the government has increased the pool of applicants by changing the rules to make more students taking the preparatory classes for the grandes écoles eligible for state aid. The schools must still take other steps to meet the 30 per cent objective, but have refused to abandon the competitive entrance exam.

Other wide-ranging reforms are transforming France's higher education and research. Sarkozy came to power in 2007 determined to tackle France's poor showing in international rankings, such as the Shanghai league table, in which the highest-ranked French university is placed 40th. (America leads these rankings and Britain doesn't do badly, given its size). Sarkozy promised to create centres of academic and research excellence to rank among the world's leading universities by 2012.

His reforms are aimed at the state-run university system set up by Napoleon, which has until now been tightly controlled. Under a new autonomy law, universities are assuming responsibility over matters such as budgets, recruitment and pay. Extra funding will help to renovate buildings and update equipment.

But the grandes écoles and other universities are mobilising to create around the country pôles de recherche et d'enseignement supérieur (Pres) – centres for research and higher education uniting the schools and universities in unprecedented partnerships. These mega-campuses, still taking shape, have been allocated billions of extra euros to turn them into institutions that can compete successfully at international level.

An example is the Université Nantes Angers Le Mans (Unam), a grouping of 11 higher education and research establishments including a teaching hospital, all in the Pays de la Loire region. Jean-Pierre Helfer, dean of Audencia School of Management Nantes, one of the partners, emphasises the value of operating regionally, with members co-operating and pooling resources.

HEC Paris is a partner in the giant Paris-Saclay Scientific Cooperation Foundation, a €4.4bn cluster of more than 20 leading higher education and research institutions that looks as though it could become one of the top 10 universities in the world.

The changes have caused much heart-searching, because higher education has remained untouched by politicians for so long. The French are extremely proud of their system, seeing it as superior to that in the Anglo-Saxon – especially American – world. The grandes écoles have a formidable reputation and have arguably created an impressive French elite who have crafted well-run institutions in a country that is an economic success. These great schools are a diverse group of higher education institutions that educate about one in 20 students, specialising in things such as engineering and business. Many are privately run and most are small. They lay on programmes geared to professional training, and have rigorous competitive entrance exams preceded for most students by two years of selective post-baccalauréat preparatory classes.

Although some charge fees of up to €12,000, the grandes écoles are not expensive. Those with the best reputations – such as the Ecole Polytechnique (science and engineering), the Ecoles Normales Supérieures (teaching, humanities and science) and Ecole Nationale d'Administration – are free and pay a salary to students. These publicly administered schools are among the dozen or so dominating the list. They were originally created to train an elite to run the country, engineers to develop infrastructure and industry, and university teachers to educate leaders.

The first schools, the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées and the Ecole des Mines, opened under the monarchy in the 1700s, but Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris were post-Revolution creations for an elite selected by merit, not birth.

The engineering schools were set up by industrial sectors to keep abreast of developing technologies. The first school of commerce, now ESCP Europe, opened in Paris in 1819, followed by others in cities such as Marseille, Bordeaux, Nantes and Rouen. France's leading business school HEC Paris – ranked second in the world and first in Europe for executive education programmes – was established in 1881.

"It's the dream of every family for their child to attend a grande école," says Professor Jean-Pierre Nioche, a consultant in higher education strategy.

Such parental ambitions are understandable when a grande école education has traditionally assured a high-profile, lucrative career. Most French presidents, Nobel prizewinners and captains of industry have passed through the system.

It is very different from the parallel university system that forbids selection, charges low fees and guarantees a place for every school-leaver who has passed the baccalauréat. Too often, there are overcrowded lecture-halls, rundown campuses – and a first-year failure rate of nearly 50 per cent.

The 81 universities that take more than 1.4 million students – over 90 per cent of the total – complain of unequal treatment. Latest figures show the state spends €14,510 on a student attending a preparatory class for a grande école against €9,400 on a university student.

Another criticism of the schools is that, despite their meritocratic ethos, their students are predominantly the children of the socially advantaged – senior managers, company executives, professionals – alumni of the same schools.

Research has shown that having a parent who is a teacher and knows the ropes boosts the chances of success, says Nioche. But he adds that merit is paramount. The sons of a president and a prime minister, both serving at the time, were refused places at a grande école where he worked.