Higher Education in France

PUBLISHED: 10:31 06 August 2012 | UPDATED: 09:59 11 January 2016

Higher education in France

Higher education in France

(c) Stylephotographs | Dreamstime.com

Education, education, education - it’s crucial if you’re moving to France with a family. Kate McNally takes a tour of the higher education options available across the Channel

The 1999 Bologna Process helped to homogenise higher education qualifications across Europe and together with many other countries France now follows the path, long-recognised in the UK, of degree (three years), Masters (four years) and PhD (five or six years).

The idea was to facilitate access to higher education institutes for students from different countries and, in doing so, to compete with US universities to attract the brightest young brains. This has proved successful and the elite French academic institutions – notably some of the grandes écoles and the private business management schools – are welcoming more and more foreign students through their doors.

So graduate qualifications in France are in line with those in the UK, but the two higher education systems are markedly different. Two major differences stand out; firstly, the large majority of tertiary education is State-funded so tuition fees are low, and secondly there are so many universities, écoles and institutes to choose from! France has literally thousands of mostly small-scale, higher education establishments, many of which specialise in specific subject areas. The country also effectively operates a two-tier system, with the academic elite seeking entrance to one of the grandes écoles (officially referred to as the écoles supérieures) and the rest heading off to plain old university or tech.

The origins of the grandes écoles date back to the 18th century when the French authorities decided to create specific training centres of excellence to ensure a steady flow of leaders to run and develop strategically important sectors such as military, mining, education, agriculture and veterinary science. In the 19th and 20th centuries, further grandes écoles were added reflecting economic and political changes in society, for example one focused on telecommunications, another on electrical engineering.

Each école supérieure was a separate institution, rather than a new faculty within an existing establishment as in the UK university model, so there are now around 250 grandes écoles in existence. Interestingly, many of these écoles supérieures do not come under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, rather the ministry relating to their areas of study – undoubtedly a link back to their origins. For example, the École Polytechnique, whose primary mission is to train military engineers, is run by the Ministry of Defence, while those teaching agriculture are run by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Inevitably, there is a hierarchy within the écoles supérieures system and arguably the most ‘powerful’ are École Nationale d’Administration and École Polytechnique which between them produce most of the key players in French politics.

The grandes écoles have strong links with industry and commerce and most of their graduates (success rate is almost 100%) are fast-tracked through to a career at the top. Hence, although applicants know they are in for some seriously back-breaking study, competition for the few hundred places each year is fierce.

And there are other perks for being among the country’s finest brains. The French government (at least the conservative one of the past years – it may now change) funnels large amounts of money into the grandes écoles, estimated at around 30% of the overall higher education budget for approximately just 1% of the student population. Also, a percentage of the best students are paid a salary by the government in return for a commitment to work for the State for five to six years post graduation. The closest equivalent in the UK to the best grandes écoles would be Oxford and Cambridge Universities, with the next highest-ranking universities such as Durham, Warwick and the London School of Economics having similar standing to the others. Unlike university entry, which is open to anyone who passes the baccalauréat, students have to pass what is known as a concours (ie entrance exams) to be accepted into an école supérieure. A common route into one of the grandes écoles is to spend the first two years post-bac studying the Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles (CPGE). Places in the CPGE are limited and generally both bac results and teacher recommendation are taken into account.

Equivalent to the first two years’ study of a degree, the courses are designed to equip students to pass the concours (exams can take place over several weeks) and prepare them for the academic rigours of a grande école. CPGE students can choose from five different categories – mathematics and science, humanities, economics and commerce, agro-science, or humanities focusing on history and languages. Clearly the choice largely dictates which écoles supérieures they can subsequently apply to.

Most students who take the exams are given a national ranking which will either open the door to a grande école, or not. Unsuccessful students can either retake the second year again and re-sit the exams or transfer to a university for the third year to get their degree.

Increasingly, many students prefer to study for a degree at university or a technical institute first before moving on to further studies at a grande école. Graduates of the grandes écoles leave with a Masters degree as a minimum and many go on to gain a PhD.

There are around 85 universities in France, far fewer than the grandes écoles, however they are larger, more diverse in terms of subject areas, and home to many more students each year.

Entry is available to anyone who has passed their baccalauréat, however there is debate about the effectiveness of this approach as quite a high percentage of university students drop out before their second year. It could be that many young people in France think the easiest option is to give university a go rather than seriously assessing if it is the path they wish to take.

University selection is similar to that of school, in that, in general, students are expected to attend the nearest university geographically that offers the course they wish to take. Economic forces often dictate this anyway as many university students cannot afford to live away from home. (Student loans in France come from the banks and obtaining one, especially at a low rate, is not easily done.)

As in the UK, most universities are named after the city or town in which they are based. In larger cities which have more than one university, they are simply numbered thereafter, for example, University of Lyon II. However many universities (and grandes écoles for that matter) are known by another name, often linked to the quartier or to famous alumni.

There are a multitude of technical and specialist institutes in France, many of which have a strong practical emphasis with work placements, similar to more technical or vocational courses in UK universities and colleges.

Again, the establishments are numerous and specialised, for example the École de Journalisme or the École d’Architecture – studies which in general are catered for by a particular faculty within most British universities.

Entry into the majority of these more specialised establishments requires passing a written and/or oral exam.

French business schools are renowned around the world, from INSEAD to the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC), and offer many of the highest-ranked management Masters courses in Europe.

The majority are private and fees are expensive, nevertheless they attract high-fliers from all corners of the globe. LF

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