Students Clamoring to Study at Revolutionary Free Tech School
While the acceptance rate at Taiwanese universities stands above 100 percent, only 1 percent of applicants are accepted at École 42, a private computer programming school in Paris. What makes this institution even more difficult to get into than a prestigious, top-ranked university like Harvard?
Students Clamoring to Study at Revolutionary Free Tech SchoolBy Karen Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 638 )
In recent years, France has become the focus of the global startup scene. After taking office last year, France’s 39-year-old President Emmanuel Macron has also been emphasizing his mission to turn France into a land of technology innovation and entrepreneurship. This startup trend is also breathing fresh air into the ivory towers of the country’s conservative higher education system.
Free tech school École 42, established in 2013 by Xavier Niel, the founder of France’s second largest telecom company Free, constitutes an important part of this innovation drive.
Niel believes that worldwide higher education faces the same problems: Due to exorbitant tuition fees and rigid admission systems, universities have become the privilege of social elites instead of ensuring social mobility by providing equal and fair avenues for all. Therefore, Niel and hacker scientist Nicolas Sadirac jointly founded École 42, hoping to break down the barriers that make academia an elusive dream for many. They wanted to broaden access to higher education to alleviate the talent shortage that industry faces.
Real Talent Takes Priority over Resume
École 42 transplanted the free and open spirit of the software developer community, offering all students tuition-free education. Anyone can apply as long as he or she is aged between 18 and 30, and no certificates are required. All it takes is to fill out an online application form, providing name, age and email address, and press the send button.
Although École 42 is not part of the traditional, orthodox education system and does not grant any degree or diploma, 70,000-80,000 young people apply for admission every year. École 42 is particularly attractive to youngsters who plan to start their own business. In a long-distance interview with CommonWealth Magazine from Paris, co-founder and general secretary Sadirac notes that 30-40 percent of graduates choose to launch their own company.
Image: School 42
However, in order to get one of the coveted places at École 42, applicants need to undergo a rigorous, merciless selection process.
After applying online, an online test constitutes the first hurdle in the selection process. The 3,000 students who make it to the next step participate in a one-month selection known as la piscine, or swimming pool, which assesses applicants’ procedural logic. They must complete new tasks every day, weekends included, and take one exam per week.
About 900 to 1,000 students survive this rigorous, high-pressure selection round, winning a place at École 42.
Nine hundred successful candidates out of a pool of 80,000 applicants amounts to an admission rate of 1.1 percent, which makes the school more selective than Harvard University or the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) with acceptance rates of 3 percent to 5 percent.
Learning to Think Independently and Solve Tasks
Instead of teaching courses, École 42 only provides project tasks. The students must complete a project task in a designated order to work their way up one level. It takes three to five years to reach the highest level 21 and graduate, but students can decide on their pace of learning themselves.
The school has no professors or textbooks. Students self-study and learn from their peers. If they encounter a problem, they search Google for the solution. If they cannot find an answer on the Internet, they ask the students sitting next to them.
The approach that École 42 uses to train software engineers completely subverts the traditional classroom teaching model that emphasizes the imparting of knowledge.
Nicolas Sadirac, co-founder and general secretary of School 42 (Image: School 42)
“The students should not spend much time on learning knowledge. They should learn how to think critically and how to solve problems,” posits Sadirac. “It's not how much you know. It's how you think,” he adds.
However, École 42 has no intention to challenge or negate the value and position of traditional universities. Sadirac believes there is not a single school that could solve all education problems. Therefore, open collaboration between schools is a topic that deserves much greater attention.
“Diversity is what we care about,” remarks Sadirac. “We want our students to interact with people from different backgrounds, so that they can think out of the box and step out of their comfort zones.”
Launching a School in the US
France’s top-ranked business school, HEC Paris, is one of the traditional universities that closely collaborates with École 42. The two schools jointly organize courses and allow students from both schools to form joint project teams.
Image: School 42
On top of collaborating with French universities, École 42 is also expanding internationally, launching a branch in Fremont, California, in 2016 that is also fully funded by Niel.
Two Frenchmen who worked in Silicon Valley high-tech companies for many years founded another institution, the Holberton School in San Francisco in 2015. Like École 42, Holberton educates software engineers using project-based learning and peer learning.
Holberton is different from École 42 in that it offers a two-year program. While there are no upfront tuition fees, students are charged a percentage of their salary over three years once they have found a job. Moreover, Holberton does not have an age limit for applicants.
While École 42 is somewhat of a latecomer in the United States, several tech company leaders such as Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have thrown their support behind it.
It remains to be seen whether École 42 will be able to replicate its French success in Silicon Valley.
Translated from the Chinese article by Susanne Ganz
Nicolas Sadirac, the co-founder of School 42, is one of the speakers in 2018 CommonWealth Economic Forum (CWEF).