Two young men having a conversation with a woman who’s sitting behind a table
Protis Club uses a shared love of football to open up opportunities for people from under-represented backgrounds © Brice Portolano, for the FT

Once a week for much of the past year, two dozen young fans of Olympique de Marseille have gathered in their supporters’ clubhouse with a focus far removed from footballing success.

They are preparing for an intellectual challenge that could determine their own futures: the chance to access some of France’s top educational institutions, including HEC Paris, one of the most elite business schools.

Protis Club uses teaching, mentoring and visits from inspirational leaders in business and politics to help prepare teenagers for the “prépa”, the fiercely competitive academic preparatory classes offered to high school graduates that allow access to France’s most prestigious grandes écoles.

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It is one example of a growing number of initiatives launched by and around higher education institutions in the country — and elsewhere around the world — to increase the social diversity of their intake. But there are some original twists.

First, Protis Club — named after one of the mythological founders of Marseille, a Greek sailor from Phocaea — is student-led. Jules Sitruk, who launched the initiative in 2022, is currently at HEC Paris but persuaded the school to give him a year off from his studies to build the project to broaden access.

“It seemed to me the solution was to create the conditions for success in a system that currently leaves to one side those who don’t know about the grandes écoles,” he says. “We are preparing together to achieve excellence through the best academic route.”

Jules Sitruk, founder of student-led outreach initiative Protis Club © Brice Portolano, for the FT

Second, the programme has extended its reach to students as young as 15, designed to inspire them to focus on academic success. It has also offered a breadth of support that extends beyond visits and talks to hands-on training by academics and lessons in geopolitics from one of the French army’s most senior generals.

Third, and most distinctive, it has focused not simply on targeting those from low-income, immigrant or minority communities or others with no direct experience of higher education. Instead, it seeks to foster mutual tolerance, support and friendship among those of all social backgrounds, united by the common bond of a passion for their football club in France’s second city.

“We wanted a mix,” says Sitruk, who is from a middle-class family in eastern Marseille but has drawn in many of his participants from the city’s poorer northern suburbs. “Each group has their own strengths and qualities. Football as their passion brings them together. They have all become good friends despite their social and cultural differences.”

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Eloïc Peyrache, the dean of HEC, says Protis Club is one of a number of approaches he is exploring to increase the diversity of intake by geography, social background and broader characteristics. He stresses that this will require a shake-up of the school’s traditionally academically focused entry criteria.

“We would keep some of our academic requirements and would add new criteria in the evaluation,” he says, citing recruitment of some applicants with a greater focus on their sporting prowess, or demonstrated excellence in music or social entrepreneurship alongside intellectual achievement.

Peyrache’s peers recognise the need for reform. Jean Charroin, dean of Essca School of Management, stresses the urgency highlighted by widespread riots in France earlier this year sparked by the killing of a young man by police.

“If we want to address these issues as higher education institutions, the social dimension is key,” he says. “There is a strong educational divide and we should be more open to people coming from different backgrounds.”

While Essca takes some students via the “prépa” exams, Charroin argues there is an increasing shift to alternative entry routes to grandes écoles. The school has partnered with two charities — Apprentis d’Auteuil and Campus Co — to provide outreach and tutoring to encourage applicants from lower-income areas of Marseille into its Bachelor of International Management degree.

Charroin aims to increase the diversity of students across Essca’s programmes and campuses substantially in the coming years, and stresses that the process requires an internal overhaul as well as changes to support and recruitment. “This is not only an educational experiment but a managerial one for our school. We have to change our practices as well.”

Fouziya Bouzerda, dean of Grenoble School of Management, hosts events for students and their parents from less privileged backgrounds, but stresses considerable obstacles remain. These include their lack of awareness of grandes écoles, and the fact that their cost remains a barrier, even if it can be offset by future earnings. In contrast to France’s less elitist and free university system, she points out “many families don’t want to incur debt”.

In addition, she says that, once recruited, such students may also need additional support to foster self-confidence, networking skills and connections to employers for internships and future employment.

But Bouzerda, who herself grew up in a poorer district with working-class Algerian parents, is committed to further efforts. “Education is an opportunity for emancipation. I experienced that myself,” she says. “We are training future leaders who understand the world and realise there is not only a single solution. There is talent everywhere.”

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