Equal right of access to national Higher Education systems is enshrined in EU law for holders of the European Baccalaureate , or school-leavers’ certificate. Although many students are able to access even the most elite of universities and the most competitive of courses, the path to higher education does not always run smoothly. Consequently some parents and students sometimes describe feeling as though they are caught in a certain degree of educational and political crossfire. Others feel the European Schools approach is not suitable, and leave the system as a consequence. In the light of these concerns, the chapter discusses the relationship of the European Baccalaureate to national and international university entrance processes. It gives examples from our recent research into how the European schools’ curriculum , and its related assessment processes, map across to a number of university courses. It also relates this to aspects of the lived experience of university through the eyes of alumni, their parents, and their tutors, drawing on our own research findings.

When considering the relationship of the EU schools to higher education, it is necessary to take into account four different categories of external relations. These are: the European schools’ own admissions policies, repeaters and leavers associated with the European Schools System, higher education admissions, and the relationship with national schools systems. We now examine each in turn.


As we discussed in Chap. 4, the admissions rules for European schools are relatively complex and have recently become even more so as the system has developed over time . Earlier we identified two types of school: Category I and Category II (Accredited) schools. In the former type, admissions priority is given to certain categories of employee directly employed by the European Commission , making the European schools a kind of ‘company school’ for practical purposes. The unintended consequence of this policy is that priority is given to certain nationalities, in particular the Germans (12.6% of the overall total of students), the French (12.1%), the Italians (9.9%), the Belgians (10.3%) and the Spanish (8.5%). (Data from Board of Governors of European schools.)

This has also meant a distinct lack of access to the children of those in supporting roles who are also part of the Brussels machinery, such as outsourced ancillary workers, journalists and lobbyists. While notionally they can also apply for places in the European Schools, they must pay to attend, unlike those directly employed by the Commission, and in addition there may not be sufficient space for these students, as they are in the lowest category of priority. Therefore we see a core group of bureaucrats who are able to benefit most extensively from the provision on offer, with others occupying a more peripheral position , causing some resentment amongst the local population and leading to problems of legitimacy (Van Parijs 2009). This represents a distinctive grouping in which there is a form of social reproduction taking place, with highly qualified, graduate professionals schooling their children together in a system that suits their particular professional needs. However this is less so potentially in Category II (Accredited) schools, as these are open to all; however, as they are fee-paying this means selection on ability to pay, once again is going to make access easier for children of graduate or professional parents. It is also likely that they will represent more closely the nationalities of the countries in which they are located. Overall this is a system very much geared up to a student body that is expected to access higher education in the future (as opposed to predominantly vocational training, or unskilled work).

Repeaters and Leavers

It is important to understand that there are different categories of leaver, and this is because leaving can mean one of three things. It could be a transfer between European schools due to parental career changes within the Commission or other European institutions, a transfer out of the European Schools System back into the national system of origin, once again because of parental careers, or it could mean leaving the system because of perceived student/school/system incompatibility.

In the former cases, this is a reasonable step given that the unproblematic flow in, out and across European Schools is the primary purpose for their existence. This is not therefore likely to disrupt university admissions to any significant extent. However in the latter case, where a student has left because he or she experienced difficulties with the particular educational model adopted by the European schools, this is more likely to have a particular impact on access to higher education in the medium to long term, either for academic or psychological reasons. In academic terms, there might have been disruption to a student’s studies for some reason, and in psychological terms this may have led to a degree of anomie or alienation as we discussed in Chap. 4. This runs the risk of acting as a form of progression ‘road block’ in terms of a student’s education in later years.

How likely this is depends on where and when a student encounters the European Schools System. It is well known that repeat rates vary across different European Schools, and the latest available data show that the range is from 0.3% (Frankfurt) to 2.0% (Bergen). Additionally, we found that repeat rates vary across school years, with a large increase occurring in S4 and S5. At this time , a student repeating a school year was also more likely to leave the European Schools System altogether. Therefore some educational routes through the system present more hazards to students than others in terms of likelihood of academic failure, and with it the likelihood of longer-term problems, particularly with regards to higher education progression.

The European Schools and Higher Education Admissions

As part of the movement towards closer union , there were attempts to make European university admissions simpler, and this was one important focus of the Lisbon Treaty of 2004. It is also evidenced in the Bologna process from 2005 onwards. During Bologna there were attempts at standardising entry across Europe as well as qualification systems and structures, as a means of co-operation, particularly with regard to the qualifications framework for the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Mobility was strongly encouraged via EHEA, and it specified the attributes that students could expect after participating in various cycles of education. This was also supported by the Erasmus scheme, which encouraged youth mobility.

Regardless of nationality , a large number (50% plus) of European schools’ students routinely take advantage of the mobility opportunities open to them, and apply to universities in the UK via the UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) system. This is regardless of any considerations surrounding university fees. Any concerns are likely to be offset by the ability of EU students to apply for student loans on the same basis as UK ones, although whether this will change in the future is unclear. It may be that the Bologna ‘scorecards’ are a factor here, with UK universities being recognised as being high quality in terms of overall degree structure, quality assurance processes and degree recognition internationally (European Commission 2011). Within the UK, many of these students attend Russell Group (top international research ) universities, including the elite universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The remaining half is distributed across Europe , the United States, and Canada, with some students attending university in Australia and New Zealand. Destination data is not collected in any systematic sense centrally by careers advisors or the Office of the Secretary General. However during our 2014–2015 study we were able to gain access to application patterns in one elite university , Cambridge.

In the academic year 2013–2014, Cambridge University received 98 applications from 14 schools offering the European Baccalaureate (the University only makes a distinction on the basis of qualification rather than whether a candidate has attended a Category 1 or Category 2 European School , for example.) Candidates applied to 22 of the standard age colleges, and to 18 of Cambridge’s 25 undergraduate courses. Given the number of applicants this was considered by the University to be a good spread; the only feature of note is that one third applied to study Natural Sciences and Engineering. Cambridge admitted 16 of those students, or 16.3%. Though this is lower than the overall success rate for students applying to the University (c. 22%), it is reported as being higher than the success rate for students not at UK schools (c. 13%). Successful applicants are typically asked for 85–90% overall, with 90% in subjects most closely related to the course they wish to study. This would suggest that candidates from European schools during the academic year 2013–2014 were being accepted at roughly the rate that might be expected, given the spread of nationalities and backgrounds, and that the percentage being requested was reasonable in terms of discriminating amongst students to find those most suited to an elite university education (roughly equivalent to A*AA and A*A*A for the Natural Sciences in terms of UK Advanced Level examinations ). We felt in the light of this that there may be merit in continuing to track admissions with reference to how long individual students had spent in (a) the British education system , (b) the European Schools System, and (c) other systems within Europe and internationally, to ascertain whether there is any relationship between the length of time in any particular system, transfers in or out of systems at particular times, and successful applications to elite universities in the UK.

In addition to the Cambridge University applications data, we had access to a limited dataset from Culham School, which is based in the UK. When we spoke to different stakeholders as we were gathering data during our study, anecdotal accounts suggested that some parents perceived problems when students are applying to highly competitive university courses. We could not find much hard evidence to support or refute this given the limited resources available to us. During the period 2009–2013, 256 students from this school went on to further and higher education. 83% of these students enrolled in UK institutions, and of this group, 62% achieved places at Russell Group universities including Oxford and Cambridge. This represents roughly three times as many successful Russell Group applicants as would be normally expected from the general applicant population . Outside the UK, 8 Culham students were accepted by the elite Sciences-Po in France during this period, and two at MIT and Berkeley in the USA. From this it seemed that the elite/research university pattern of successful applications was broadly similar to that of many selective independent schools in the UK, and therefore when compared to the Cambridge University data, the position of EU Schools students looked significantly more secure than perhaps some parents considered it to be.

As a result of the internationally diverse application patterns of students, within the European Schools system there is a similarly broad understanding of different entry requirements in different countries and institutions, as you would expect. However amongst the stakeholders we spoke to, there was also criticism of the European Baccalaureate not being fully understood. In addition, we came across some isolated misunderstandings about particular British entry requirements and expectations (for example it was categorically stated to us by one member of a committee that a particular combination of Chemistry and Art was needed for Architecture degree courses, and a combination of History and Chemistry was needed for Archaeology degree courses, as a justification for particular minority subject combinations being made possible within the Baccalaureate . These are not conventional combinations within the British system by any means, and when we checked, they were not specified by any universities as a UCAS entry requirement, so we can only assume from this that a combination of parental anxieties and pressures had led to the assumption).

Another reason to suppose that university admissions practices are reasonably consistent is that in the UK, explicit guidance has been given to university admissions officers in order to ensure a full understanding of the European Baccalaureate qualification (Department for Education 2013). Within this document, the qualification is described as ‘demanding’ and it is made clear that candidates are expected to perform well across a range of subjects. It should be noted that, as part of the UK university entry process, candidates are required to complete a centralised Universities and Colleges Admissions Service application form, known as the ‘UCAS’ form. It is made clear in the Department for Education (DfE) guidance document that on this form, candidates may give their S6 results, with some additional S5 results if this is felt to be appropriate. The document states clearly that around half of European School applicants to UK universities are likely to be non-British or Irish nationals and many will therefore not have studied English as their mother tongue , but that further proof of proficiency in English should not be required. Typical offers to candidates have included specifying an overall European Baccalaureate score (as a percentage), or specifying an overall European Baccalaureate score (%) combined with marks out of 10 in specific subjects. In addition to this, institutions are given specific guidance on making offers with respect to four points:

  • Offers asking only for a final EB score are seen as most suitable for subjects requiring a broad education, with evidence of attainment across a wide curriculum.

  • For degree courses not requiring any specific subject knowledge on entry, the DfE advises that breadth of the EB should be seen as an advantage.

  • For courses prescribing certain A level subjects, institutions may wish to specify the marks to be attained in particular subjects.

  • It would be very unusual to specify marks in more than three subjects, even for the most competitive courses . (Department for Education 2013: 16)

This document has been widely circulated amongst UK university admissions officers and from our informal enquiries, there appears to be good recognition of the qualification overall. In other non-English speaking countries there is often less selection for university entrance, and this would mean in many cases that for all but the most competitive courses, such as Medicine, European Schools graduates holding the Baccalaureate would be automatically eligible for university places.

Other European National and Independent School Systems

As we have discussed throughout this book, the European Schools System is designed to align to each of the national systems, and this is supported through the engagement of Government-sponsored teachers from each member state, as well as the engagement of school inspectors from each member state. Its aim is to allow free movement of students at different stages of their academic careers and this includes university , which is why a clear relationship between the European Baccalaureate and university entrance has been enshrined in law. As it states in Article 5 (2), holders of the Baccalaureate should:

  1. 1.

    Enjoy, in the member state of which they are nationals, all the benefits attaching to the possession of the diploma or certificate awarded at the end of secondary school education in that country; and

  2. 2.

    Be entitled to seek admission to any university in the territory of any member state on the same terms as nationals of that member state with equivalent qualifications

The system is designed to be a comprehensive schooling system, with all students having the opportunity of sitting the final examination . However as we have argued previously, the student body is closer to those who attend a French Lycee or a German Gymnasium, or selective independent or grammar schools in the UK, making it more representative of families with graduate or professional parents. Therefore, the European Schools System is potentially aligned more to some types of school than others, and very close to the upper end of the highly stratified UK educational system, described by Hansen and Vignoles in some depth (Hansen and Vignoles 2005).

In terms of this social alignment, there are a number of striations, which it is useful to consider. Here we mean striations in the Deleuzian sense (cf. Deleuze 1968) of a flow along particular paths, rather than a smooth, equal distribution. With regards to the European schools, six primary striations are considered: intelligence , social class, gender , race , sexuality and dis(ability) .

Social Striations

The existence of international elite bilinguals within the system indicates a form of higher social status, as we suggested in Chap. 4. A combination of language skills, as well as being embedded within a multinational and multicultural system, means that students develop supra-national identities that reflect the globalised graduate status of their parents. Another indicator of this particular homogenisation of social class is the fact that the original vocational programme, formerly developed in the 1960s, has been allowed to degrade over time and is no longer offered. This is because for the dominant social group it has no particular relevance. University entrance has become the goal.

To put this into a wider context, students are entering a system in which an individual’s ability to enter university is extensively linked to parental education and income levels, something that is also a characteristic of the UK education system (Hansen and Vignoles 2005) and which goes a long way to explaining the large number of applications to UK universities. Stratified higher education systems such as this are likely to be the places most attractive and familiar to the average European schools’ graduate. In a high-skills, knowledge -intensive, economy, this makes sense at a personal level, but overall the system ignores other social groups in its quest for international mobility for its students . As Van Parijs (2009) writes,

It is not good for the offspring of the EU’s bureaucracy to grow up in such a socially homogeneous environment. Nor is it good for a city like Brussels to have part of its school population creamed off by what amounts to an invidious apartheid regime: when you are admitted to an elite school by virtue of the status of your parents, it is hard not to develop a feeling of superiority towards those who are not.

Given that the European Schools are co-educational, divisions surrounding gender within this schooling system are less significant than they might otherwise be. This can largely be attributed to a clear resistance to early specialisation. Maintaining student involvement with all categories of academic subjects , ranging from the humanities to the sciences and mathematics, means that some of the gendered subject engagement patterns that exist in other countries are less of an issue here. By contrast, the original vocational programme from the 1960s was highly gendered, but as we have said, it no longer exists.

There is provision for Specific Learning Difficulties and to some extent physical disabilities, as well as a dedicated school inspector for this area of operation, but the competitive nature of the academic environment can mean that certain students are eased out of the system over time , or do not apply in the first instance. The remaining student body therefore has become a self-selecting group, with relatively limited support available for what we might term ‘non-standard’ students. It is hard to see how a student with Down Syndrome might thrive in such a system once at upper secondary level, for example, even though such students are sometimes considered potentially capable of sitting some GCSE examinations in the UK. Yet the European Schools System is meant to be a comprehensive system, suggesting a discrepancy between the original inclusive intention, and current policies and practices.

We have no available data on student sexuality, so it may be that just as gender is not a particular issue for the European Schools, sexuality may not be either. A lack of the usual sites of discriminatory practice, such as compulsory school uniforms, may contribute to a sense of tolerance and inclusion as far as different identities are concerned.

The student body of the European Schools is primarily white, as one might expect given the geographical and historic basis of the European Union , although there is some privileging of certain kinds of ethnicity over others. An example of this is the fact that Islam appears in relation to religious education , but there is no separate coverage of Judaism. Given the legacy of the Second World War, and the fact that its existence was a significant contributory factor in the founding of the European Union itself, this is surprising.

Given the social positioning of many European schools’ families, it became clear throughout the course of our study that a form of ‘back door’ selection was evident within the system. This was achieved through firstly, having a predominance of graduate parents, and secondly an easing out of particular children at S4 (upper secondary level) who might be struggling with Science and Mathematics. In this way, social class has been conflated with notions of intelligence and academic ability, in a way that is unhelpful to those that had been rejected by a system acting in its own interests (rather than those of the wider European Union community). This is a school system located within an advanced capitalist economy where university attendance is heavily associated with meritocratic advancement. We saw this routinely acknowledged by parents and teachers, when they spoke of the competitive nature of university entry in many countries, such as the UK stratified system as well as the US college system, the French Grandes Ecoles and so on. In this way it is possible to see the social reproduction of the bureaucratic classes in action. This is linked to a socially fluid movement of families across different countries but within the same cadre of society. The notion of comparative social time also played a part here. Basil Bernstein developed a concept of the ‘symbolic ruler’ in which children at school were measured against each other to check their speed of relative development (Bernstein 2000). Those students in the European Schools System who develop at a different rate are often described as being ‘behind’ and needing to ‘stay down’ through repetition of school years. We also became aware of unselfconscious phraseology in documentation of ‘future leaders’ amongst upper secondary students, as a justification for enhanced provision and funding levels. In this regard, social status has been conflated not only with intelligence, but also with leadership qualities.

Curriculum and Higher Education Preparedness

A final aspect of progression to university that needs to be raised is that of the relationship between individual curriculum subjects, and those routinely encountered in the modern university. If we examine the European Baccalaureate as it currently stands, we see that many of the subjects take a form similar to that elsewhere in Europe in the mid-twentieth century. In this sense, subjects can be seen as fairly traditional and as such, recognised by various university systems. However within the higher education sector there have been changes in recent years in the way that subjects are grouped. We see increasing numbers of applied subjects, as well as interdisciplinary approaches to different subjects that look very different from what is on offer in the European schools. In the European schools’ curriculum, upper secondary subjects are as follows:

Art, Biology, Chemistry, Economics , Physical Education, Geography , Ancient Greek, History, ICT, Language 1, Language 2, Language 3, Language 4, Latin , Mathematics, Advanced Mathematics, Ethics and Religious Studies, Music, Other National Language, Physics, Religion and Philosophy . (Note: the situation of Latin and Greek is unusual in that it only relevant to a relatively limited number of students, such as for university entrance requirements in Greece).

Conspicuously absent are popular academic subjects such as psychology , explicit provision for non-European language such as Mandarin, Japanese and Arabic, sociology , social science, engineering, law, technology, and so on. In the light of this absence, we analysed the curricula of three leading universities to establish patterns of subject engagement, compared to the spread of subjects available for the university entrance qualification, the European Baccalaureate . Here we see the nature of the curriculum problem. At university level, traditional subjects form the minority of degree programmes available, yet within the European Schools they represent the exclusive offering to students, and this allows us to see why some students might become potentially disengaged with such a system in the absence of reform .

University College London (UCL)

The range of degrees on offer at UCL is as follows. As can be seen, many are interdisciplinary in character, or represent subjects not studied at the European schools (see Table 6.1).

Table 6.1 University College London Undergraduate Degrees

University of Luxembourg

The University of Luxembourg offers the following undergraduate degrees (Bachelors). Once again, it is clear that many of the subject areas are applied or interdisciplinary (see Table 6.2).

Table 6.2 University of Luxembourg Undergraduate Degrees

University of Barcelona

In the University of Barcelona the following undergraduate degrees are being offered, and again, many are applied and/or interdisciplinary (see Table 6.3).

Table 6.3 University of Barcelona Undergraduate Degrees

Some Concluding Thoughts

This chapter has dealt with the relationship between the European Schools and higher education progression pathways. This is more significant than just considering how students move from one to the other on the educational conveyor belt common to most eighteen year olds. Whilst superficially successful in academic terms, these same progression pathways clearly demonstrate some of the more negative aspects of the wider European Schools System. By this we mean inclusion issues, as well as the deployment of a dated curriculum structure that is becoming increasingly out of step with the offer of many other European institutions. This is something which was clear in our conversations with alumni, who described being well prepared for a different kind of degree course to that which they had ultimately experienced, with theoretical rather than applied skills at the forefront of their schooling, and language skills that did not always link closely enough to workplace needs. In addition, very small teaching groups and perhaps overly conscientious tutorial nurturing sometimes contributed to low levels of individual resilience later on. The European Schools System was built with good intentions, but the product it was delivering had become decoupled from wider society.

To the credit of the wider European schools family, it is the awareness of this situation as well as a desire for reform that is driving engagement with alternatives, combined with an extensive redrafting of its curriculum offer. In this way, they are challenging the effects of the very limited external moderation and scrutiny that has been the practice until now, which has allowed the system to become increasingly introspective over the decades. There is also a growing understanding that the current high cost, high academic attainment model, one of the most expensive in the world, has moved away from the original intentions of its founders, who emphasised inclusion rather than elitism. While internationalism has always been a clear and distinct strength of the system, in a globalised knowledge-based economy, this has started to hamper innovation in the face of an older curriculum model that emphasises traditional forms of knowledge . Current success in higher education access for European Baccalaureate graduates disguises a system under threat from changes to the external environment. In the last chapter we examine in greater detail the notion of Cosmopolitanism /Europeanism and the pedagogic arrangements that can be made for it.