The affirmative action problem: The case of Sciences-Po.

A problem …

In 2001, Sciences-Po have changed its admission procedures, there are now two ones. The first one is an entrance examination (which has always existed). Considered as one of the hardiest in France, it consists in three writing examinations : English, History, and one to choose between literature, mathematic and economy. It’s completed by a meeting with a jury.

The problem is, for two decades, a lot of private preparations for this examination have been created. Those private preparations are very expensive and almost exclusively located in the big cities, but on an other hand also quite effective (almost all the student accepted were from those preparations). Here is the problem : only rich and urban people could afford to send their children in such a preparation and the vast majority of the population of the school was (because of the effectiveness of these preparations) a rich and urban population. It exists here a problem of justice. Even if all the people have the opportunity to participate in the examination, the effective chances to integrate the school are not the same for everyone.

How could the school change this situation ? Even if they couldn’t act on the preparation of the examination and all the other inequalities before the examination, they could act on the procedure itself. To go against this phenomenon, the school has created a second procedure in 2001 : an alleged entrance examination in which the writing exercise on table is replaced by a long oral over a specific research project. Only a few students can have this examination : students from a list of high-schools considered by the French administration as placed in disadvantaged areas in which people can’t afford private preparations.[1] The Main advantage of this reform was to diversify the population of the school by adding people from disadvantaged areas (suburb and countryside) and from disadvantaged social class to the school.

            A solution ?

In 2001, this procedure has raised vigorous debates in France. We are facing problems relative to egalitarianism. What is sure is : this new step is oriented in the right direction. This is an application of what John Rawls called the difference principle[2]. With the new procedure inequality is created to improve the situations of the worse off group of students. The initial inequality concerns an unjust repartition of places in the school according to personal background (or parents’ wealth). Following Rawls I argue the new procedure is just by counterbalancing an unjust inequality by an other inequality to equalize the situation.

But arguing in favor of an inequality only because it counterbalances another unjust inequality is not sufficient. It doesn’t say why the initial inequality was unjust. Once again, we can find in Rawls’ philosophy some answers. The inequality of opportunity in the examination is initially created by an inequality in backgrounds (parents’ incomes, living areas). Rawls uses the veil of ignorance to justify those inequalities are unjust. In this case we suppose each person doesn’t know her place in the society (wealth, job, capacities, social class). In this case, regarding people’s rationality, each person will want to improve her maximin. It’s the better situation we can obtain in the worst off case. The maximin will be : equality in basic social goods. It leads us to justify our difference principle. If rationally we can’t accept inequalities thanks to this thought of experiment, it is just and rational to counterbalance inequalities even with a difference principle.

But only treated the problem through Rawls’s thinking is insufficient. The problem treated here is not directly a problem of basic social goods. And even if we can say at the origin there was a problem of basic social good this problem is a global one and only the state could have resolved it, not the school. Some people highlight the confusion : if we are not treating the real problem of basic social goods, to what are we applying the difference principle ? In my opinion, what the school wanted to do is not to provide a global solution to the problem (role of the government) but more to create a first step toward more equality in its own examination. We can however say the new procedure is an equalization of people’s capabilities to enter the school.

Amartya Sen understood capabilities as the ability to do something[3]. Before the reform, the inequality concerned an inequality in capacities to success the examination. All the students, because of the expensive preparation were not capable to reach equally their goals. They had the same wishes but not the same means. The school could act on that point. By adapting the entrance procedure to the means of people, the new procedure provides a sort of effective equality between the candidates over their real capacities. The equality is seen as effective because : the capability to reach the school is not anymore different between students according to differences of background. People who start with a disadvantage in backgrounds will have advantages in the examination. In other words, the reform has profoundly changed the vision of equality of opportunity in our case : it’s not seen anymore as “everyone has the right to apply to the examination and then we judge the candidates on efficiency“ (which could correspond in Rawls thinking as a liberal equality) but it’s now seen as “everyone can reach a success in the examination because we care about effective equality“ (which corresponds to democratic equality). The capability approach enables to highlight here we are not dealing with formal equality (which was present before the reform) but with effective equality.

To put it in a nutshell, John Rawls and Amartya Sen are complementary to understand Sciences-Po reform : the difference principle is completed by capabilities approche to create an effective equality in Sciences-Po entrance examination.

            Some critics…

I have now to nuance my support to the reform which is not perfect. Firstly, all the students who finally reach the school didn’t produce an equal amount of work. We lost here the notion of desert (critic of right wing political parties). But let’s consider again Rawls’ thinking. For Rawls the problem is : because people didn’t choose their backgrounds or the distribution of basic social goods (they are lucky), even if they work more they don’t morally deserve what they get from it. We can apply this analysis to the students who enjoyed the preparation : they don’t morally deserve the admission because they only got it from being lucky with their parents.

I also want to add factual elements. The common point between those who argue in favor of the reform and the opponents is their love of freedom. Before the reform, only 6% of the students had a social scholarship, now it reaches 25%. On the same time the students from the working class people reach now 20% whereas it was around 0% in 2001[4]. Considering these numbers I want to ask : where is the liberty you want to reach ? In a system (like the new one) which enables all the social classes to enter the school and which therefor provide a global liberty for everyone to choose their school ? Or in a system which enables only certains favored categories of people to reach their goals and condemns others to a lack of choices ? I honestly prefer the first option.

Even if I can answer to those critics, I still see some imperfections in the procedure. Basing the difference principle over the areas of high schools is a good first step. But the procedure doesn’t take in account parents’ incomes. That’s why today 40% of the students who enjoy the specific procedure are from upper class families[5] and in theory don’t need this helps. They steel places to students who really need it. Thanks to the first results, the reform should be flexible and be modified to go against bias like this. A possible new progress of the reform should be for example to add some precise evaluations of the social status of each students.

Finally my main problem is that the reform is only a reaction to a problem and not an action against it. Even If Rawls view alone isn’t pertinent in this case, he provides us the good reflexion over the large scale : the initial problem against which the reform reacts is truly an unequal repartition of social basic goods. A real action against this problem could only come from a bigger scale, like the scale of the state. The reform is not a long term solution to the real problem.


[1] We can find the official admission procedure rules here : (2017). Règlement des procédures d’admission au collège universitaire de l’IEP de Paris.. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Nov. 2017].

[2] All the informations I will provide about Rawls are explained in : Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. 2nd ed. Harvard university press.

[3] We can find a more complete definition of the capability approach in : Sen, A. (2011). The idea of justice. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[4] Vincent Tiberj. Sciences Po, dix ans après les Conventions Education Prioritaire. 2011. <hal- 01064424>

[5] Ibid

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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