École 42, the tuition-free school without teachers and without books

By José Escamilla de los Santos
jose.escamilla@itesm.mx

 

The University as we currently know it is in constant transformation. An example of this is the École 42 in France: a tuition-free school without teachers and without books. The project emerged as a result of the view of the French millionaire, Xavier Niel, that universities are not developing the IT experts needed by French industry with the knowledge and skills required in this field.

Universities are not developing the IT experts needed by industry.

École 42 is a highly selective engineering school in software development. The first year it opened its doors, it received 50,000 admission applications for 1,000 places. Applications are open to anybody: you don’t need a high school diploma, or an undergraduate or graduate degree. The only requirement is to be between the ages of 18 and 30.

An educational business model is more than just tuition, enrollment and budgets, since it also involves organizational structure and operations matters. This includes academia, professionals, support staff, facilities, technological infrastructure, physical and virtual spaces, and amenities.

École 42 has a total of 30 employees, including teachers and support staff for the cafeterias, cleaning and security. Importantly, the students themselves are responsible for managing and operating the school’s services, such as the internet network and computers. Since students don’t pay any tuition, most of them are more than willing to participate in these tasks for the school, as a sort of community service. This support provided by the students makes it possible for the school to operate with just 30 employees.

The selection process for admission to École 42 is as follows. First, participants take a series of online tests related to topics such as attention, logic, concentration and resilience. Then, the best 3,000 participants are selected and divided into groups of 1,000 applicants. The next stage of the process consists of an immersion test known as “La Piscine”, which is French for swimming pool. Each group of 1,000 applicants begins a one-month boot camp (intensive programming course). For this stage of the process, no knowledge of programming is required. In fact, there is even a difference in the levels of programming skills among students. There is a weekly evaluation. At the end of the intensive course stage, the 333 best students from each group are chosen for a total of 1,000 students who will begin training at École 42. The duration of studies at École 42 is planned to cover a period of three years; however, since students can advance at their own pace, they can even graduate within one and a half years.

Xavier Niel at École 42. / Photo: Martin Bureau, AFP

Xavier Niel at École 42. / Photo: Martin Bureau, AFP

An educational business model based on altruism.

At École 42, the figure of the professor does not exist as we now know it, but there is a pedagogic team, in charge of designing the curriculum. In relation to the academic activities, students are responsible for their own learning and also carry out peer activities and peer evaluation. Learning activities are designed with a project-based learning, peer-learning and peer-evaluation approach. Consequently, when students carry out team activities, the team’s grade is the lowest grade of any of the team members, assuring that they all contribute to the team so as not to affect their grades. The pedagogical approach used at École 42 is oriented toward the development of disciplinary competencies, but not explicitly toward transversal competencies.

École 42 is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Its physical installations are modern and inspiring and are similar to those of the companies in Silicon Valley. There are spaces that integrate street art concepts and works by Banksy, table soccer spaces for entertainment, a “disco elevator” with music and lights, and the school’s exit door says “hasta la vista, baby” as you leave.

Affordable learning that advances a large number of students thanks to peer learning and peer evaluation.

The school’s business model is based on altruism. Niel donated part of his fortune, 100 million euros, to build École 42. In addition, Nicolas Sadirac, who in 1999 founded École pour l'informatique et les nouvelles technologies (Epitech), with his experience in learning by doing helped in the conception and creation of École 42.  

With this model, students are expected, on completing their studies and after obtaining a good job, to offer other people the chance to study like them at École 42 totally free, by giving donations. Some interesting facts reveal that 50% of graduates work in startups where they can make recommendations and put their knowledge into practice. 35% work in companies established as corporations and 15% found their own company.

In 2016, another official École 42 campus was opened in Silicon Valley, in Fremont, California. Niel's interest to establish there was due to the great labor demand that exists of students with the knowledge of computation and programming. The École 42 model has also been adopted in other countries and there are currently three franchises in Rumania, Ukraine and South Africa.

An alternative for university credentialization.

The example of École 42 poses several scenarios for innovating in educational settings, beginning with its unique business model and could represent a proposal for replicating this model in Mexico and other countries in Latin America. It also becomes an alternative for university credentialization, because it means that students do not necessarily have to attend university in order to become experts in programming or informatics, as it offers a shorter path with a higher level of employability than many universities, making it very attractive. In addition, it leads us to question why traditional education is so distant from practice. Elements of this model could be incorporated into a traditional university to make practical work more attractive to students with the aim of joining the workforce more rapidly. Finally, some elements or components of the model could be replicated, such as the pedagogical and didactic aspects, where learning is self-directed and teamwork increases the students' commitment to learning.