Séverine Chauvel

(Interview conducted in February 2021)

How was the research carried out?

With my colleagues Marianne Blanchard and Hugo Harari-Kermadec, we combined quantitative methods using data from the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation (specifically, the student information tracking system or SISE) and qualitative methods (interviews and observation of Master’s 1 program admissions committees) to capture changes in what drives selection in this segment of higher education. I then did an ethnographic study of admissions practices for a particular Master’s program in biology to understand how students are evaluated.

Whereas high school graduates are admitted to university in France by way of the Parcoursup higher education entry platform, run with algorithms, there is no unified process for admission to a Master’s program. Instead, since Fall 2017 and in accordance with a law passed on December 23, 2016, admissions are determined by the given institution’s “receiving capacity.” One concern of our study was to explain the shared professional norms that exist above and beyond heterogeneous practices. Moreover, the “Bienvenue en France” [Welcome to France] plan recently revised foreign student admission requirements. Implementation of that plan has affected not only student demand but also local admissions practices.

What characterizes the selectiveness you observed and what changes have occurred in recent years?

We began by studying changes since 2009 in students’ social and academic trajectories by specific Master’s program, information readily available in the SISE base. This investigation showed clear and increasing differentiation by university and program, a phenomenon that has already been clearly documented in comparative studies of France’s elite higher education training institutions versus its universities, but our study has now found objective evidence of it within universities themselves. It should be noted that social selectiveness changes in the move from Licence programs [the Licence is the first-level graduate degree in France, preceding the Master’s] to Master’s, particularly for admission to a Master’s program in Île-de-France. The increase in academic and social selectiveness found between Licence Master’s also varies by university. Moreover, social and academic polarization was found not only between universities but also between specific higher education discipline-based programs.

What are the causes of the selectiveness observed and what explains this intensification of it in universities?

The narrowing of social profiles found in moving up the scale of higher education has become more acute over time. The relatively intense social selection at the Master’s level indicates that the population of students admitted to Master’s programs in Île-de-France had greater economic, social, and academic resources at the end of the period, in 2018, than at the outset in 2009. This means that the 2016 reform has only prolonged a preexisting trend at the scale of universities themselves. This is consistent with our interviews, which show that Master’s program admissions selection was already informally operative. Starting at the Licence 1 level, the hierarchical ordering of the Île-de-France university space intensifies, but this development is much more active for admissions at the Master’s level, due to inter-university competition, as attested by university rankings, and increased student numbers and demand.

What effects is the observed selectiveness having and to what degree are admissions practices impacted?

As Marc-Olivier Déplaude showed in the case of France’s nationwide qualifying examination to study medicine, the numerous clausus already in effect in this field has gone together with a “‘selection’” process, “initially denied, then explicitly applied.” In other words, the decision to limit the number of students was then used to justify the move to select them, despite the fact that in some programs it may be difficult to reach the set number. Master’s program selection procedures reflect the resonance and power of the professional norm of independence; in other words, the academic profession’s ability to self-regulate, as there is no national-level or university-level system to constrain its activity. The fact is that the actual admissions practices of the academics in charge of Master’s programs in Île-de-France are affected by organizational workings and competition between programs. For some the question is, how can we be sure to admit the “best” students to our program? For the others, how can we avoid losing students and remain “attractive”?

Does the situation in Île-de-France reflect a more general one at the national scale, and perhaps an international trend?

The concentration of universities in the Île-de-France region is high, making it a laboratory for revealing the trend toward competition in admissions practices and one in which researchers can also investigate the social causes of this development. Since 2016, the fact that admission to a Master’s program has become selective in both France and other European countries is driving competition between French and foreign universities. The “Bienvenue en France” plan, which opened up the possibility of charging different tuition fees to foreign students, has only strengthened Master’s selection-by-social-and-national-origins operations bolster competitive logic across the board.