in France, 2 : Higher education
"grandes écoles" and lycées
Compared to other countries, France has an unusual and complex system
of higher education.
In virtually all countries in the world, the pinnacle of the education
system, the institutions providing the finest centres of excellence,
Not so in France.
While France has close to a hundred universities, most of them able to
hold their own as regards teaching and research with universities in
other parts of Europe, the peak of
the education pinnacle in France is represented by the country's "Grandes Ecoles",
relatively small and highly selective "schools" (in the American sense
of the word) which provide a cosseted higher education to the nation's
future elites - tomorrow's "haut fonctionnaires" (senior civil
servants), leaders of industry, top military brass, top politicians,
engineers, physicists and others. In spite of the national preocupation
with equality and equal opportunities, the top end of the French higher
education systems is elitist.
are very well funded, have small classes and top teaching staff; indeed
they (and the lycée classes preparing students for their
entry exams) syphon off a disproportionate amount of the education
budget - to the detriment of France's universities that are
considerably underfunded, compared with international standards. Two of
France's Grandes Ecoles (ENS
but no universities, are listed in the 2009 THES/QS world's top 100
universities listing; conversely, French schools of management do well
in the 2009 QS listings for Europe, with 4 of the top 20 places,
including the No.1 spot (INSEAD).
Nonetheless, despite their limited
universities generally do a remarkably good job; and in terms of
productivity (the ratio between investment per student, quality, and
the results obtained) they must rank among the most efficient
institutions of higher education in any developed country!
Basic standard student fees in France for the 2016-2017 academic year
€uros per year
for undergraduates, and 256 € per year for post graduate
courses - plus a few extras that may add on less than 100
Students are also eligible for subsidised student restaurants, basic
but very cheap student residences (though demand well outstrips supply
for rooms in residences) bus passes and discounts in many places. In
addition, students from low-income backgrounds get grants; French
student grants vary from just exemption from paying tuition
fees, to exemption + 4370 € per year, and are means
French universities are open to all "bacheliers", that is
who have passed their baccalauréat. However, while some
types of degree
course are open to all comers (notably courses in arts faculties and
social sciences), scientific and medical courses are usually only open
to students who have passed a scientific baccalauréat.
The baccalauréat is the gold standard, when it
comes to getting
into university; but getting into a "grande école" is a
ball game. Entry into many "grandes écoles" is at "bac+2"
the level of the third year of university studies; and to get into a
"grande école", many students actually stay on in
Lycée for two whole
years after the baccalauréat. In this respect,
Lycées are also a part
of the French higher education system, thanks to what is known as "les
education is thus provided by three main types of institution: lycées,
and "grandes écoles".
of higher education.
Unlike high schools in virtually every other country, French
have a role that extends beyond the traditional end of high school.
Thus, the best and biggest lycées all have two more years of
corresponding to the first two years of higher education. The most
prestigious of these are known as "les classes
prépas), and are basically a highly selective alternative to
two years of (generally unselective) university. Students in
are in small classes, and have an intense programme of studies, often
over 30 hours of classes a week, plus plenty of homework; but the
rewards are good, and students work hard to succeed.
their students for entry into the "grandes écoles" (see
aspect of the French education system that has no equivalent in other
"Prépas" are the classic
illustration of the traditional French approach to education, which
involves a lot of book-learning, long hours in the classroom,
amassing of facts and information, and less in the way of
questioning, discovery and creativity than is customary in the
English-speaking countries and many others. After all, the
was invented by Napoléon, as a means to train (some would
the educated but subservient elites who would run the nation - a task
in which it has been very successful until now. Some common
classes are Khâgne and Hypokhâgne (literary
studies), Maths sup and
Maths spé (mathematics), or Prépa HEC (business
and commercial studies).
For more about French Lycées, see the Primary and secondary
de Technicien Supérieur. Lycées
are also responsible for providing instruction for what is the
equivalent of Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) in the UK, i.e. two-year
higher education courses, generally technologically or vocationally
oriented. BTS classes are selective entry, and as in "classes
students have a heavy load of coursework to get through. The approach
tends to be "scolaire", i.e. as in a school, rather than
"universitaire", and classes are small (up to 30 or so). Popular BTS
courses include "mechanics", "trilingual secretairat", "tourism", and
France has 82 state universities, plus 5 Catholic universities (and a
large number of private "institutes", some of which award degrees.)
The development of French state universities over the past half century
has been greatly hampered by a combination of two factors: a) the very
heavy role of the state in their administration and development, and b)
considerable underfunding, compared to universities in other countries.
After considerable delay, and oppositiion to reform from within the
universities themselves, things are changing, and a law on the Autonomy
of Universities was passed in 2007, giving greater decisional power to
the Presidents (vice chancellors) of public universities - among other
Universities are officially known by the name
of the city in which they are located: there are thus 13 institutions
called the University of Paris, numbered from 1 to XIII; most of these
are actually in the suburbs. Many Universities have taken other names,
which they use on all their official documents; for example the Université Blaise
Pascal in Clermont Ferrand, or the Université de Provence
in Aix. Universities are divided into faculties that are officially
called "UFRs" (Unités de Formation et de Recherche), though
"Faculté" is still often used - as in Faculté des
Sciences or Faculté
Universities also include other "components"
(composantes), such as IUTs
(Institut Universitaires de Technologie) which offer two-year diplomas
(called DUT) and also degrees; or IAEs,
(Instituts d'Administration des Entreprises) - business management
institutes, with a special status, which have been set up in recent
years in response to an awareness that universities had largely missed
out on the massive expansion in demand for higher education business
courses - demand that had been taken up (with varying degreees of
academic quality) by private business schools, that have flourished
Universities award three types of degree, in line with the European
"Bologna" system. The first degree (3 years) is the Licence, the first
postgraduate degree (5 years' study) is the Masters (using the
English term), and the final degree, obtained after at least eight
years' study, is the Doctorate.
Degree courses must all be approved by the ministry for higher
education, and every four years all universities now go through a
horrendously bureaucratic and time-consuming process known as
Degrees at Licence and Masters levels come with various grades: as
throughout the French education system, marks are graded on a scale of
0 to 20, with 10 being the pass mark. A pass degree is one where the
student has an average mark of between 10 and 11.99; at first degree
level, the majority of students get a pass degree. From 12 upwards,
students receive a "mention"
Assez Bien from 12 to 13.99, Bien from 14 to 15.99, and Très
16 upwards. Any general "mention" would tend to correspond at
least to a 2:1 (upper second) degree from a UK university. In most
university departments, a general 'Mention très bien" would
normally be awarded to more than 3% of students, often far less - so it
is really something quite exceptional on a graduate's CV.
Graduation ceremonies do not exist in French universities.
However, some university departments have introduced unofficial
ceremonies, notably for Masters graduates.
Universities, which are under the theoretical control of the local
"Rectorat" (Education Authority), are run by a Board (Conseil
d'Administration - CA), presided over by an elected Vice Chancellor,
the "Président". Présidents
d'université are elected by the CA for a
period of 4 years, once renewable. The CA is made up of elected
representatives of the teaching staff (about 50% of members), of
administrative staff and students, plus external members representing
reorganisation of higher education in France
universities are in the process of reorganising themselves into massive
local federations of existing universities and institutes of higer
education, known as PRES
- or Pôle de
recherche et d'enseignement supérieur
– higher education and research poles. There is a
twofold aim in
this; firstly to save money, by merging some of the administrative
structures currently duplicated in each university or
Secondly to make French universities more "visible" on the
international stage, and hopefully, by bringing together under
single umbrella research laboratories currently belonging to
different universities , boost the ranking of French
in international league tables.
For example, while it
is hard for the universities of Bordeaux 1, Bordeaux 2, Bordeaux 3 and
Bordeaux 4 to feature individually in global university league tables,
it will supposedly be easier for the new "University of Bordeaux", with
its 60,000 students, to do so. And where league table places are
obtained purely thanks to the volume of research carried out by an
institution, or the number of graduates, the desired result may be
achieved. Whether that makes the university/ies of Bordeaux any better
in real terms is debatable.
It does certainly put more
coherence into the "university map" of France, insofar as having four
universities all calling themselves the "University of Bordeaux" is
confusing to outsiders; but universities had already tackled this
problem by taking specific names - such as Université Michel
(Bordeaux 2). Furthermore, the new structure remains confusing in that
the new "University of Bordeaux" is made up of four establishments that
are each - very officially - universities in their own right. Whether
that remains the case for long remains to be seen.
Strasbourg, the three universities merged into one in 2009, to form the
single "University of Strasbourg", with its 42,000 students. But more
changes are afoot, as in 2013 the University of Strasbourg will merge
with the University of Haute Alsace, to form the University of Alsace.
While the UHA will gain in visibility from joining the much bigger
University of Strasbourg, it is not exactly clear what the advantages
will be for the new University of Strasbourg.... unless sheer
size is deemed a vital criterion of success.
There are certainly some positive sides to the PRES
restructuring of higher education in France; but this latest reform
does not address the real difficulties faced by French universities,
which are a consequence of their serious underfunding in comparison
with universities in most other developed countries. The stitching
together of French universities that is currently underway may well be
unraveled in the years to come.
According to an old French law, no private institution can call itself
a "university"; but this does not stop the Catholic universities from
As with state universities, there is often an official name (such as
Institut Catholique de Lyon) and the common name that most people, and
the institutions themselves, use (such as Université
Lyon). Catholic universities offer the same range of degree courses as
state universities, and students can freely move between the two
these tend to call themselves "schools", and include some of the
"grandes écoles" (see below), plus a whole range of private
establishments offering business degrees, technical qualifications and
other courses. To offer a "degree", a school must have its courses
recognised by the Ministry, in the same way as public universities.
Les Grandes Ecoles.
These are the pinnacle of the French education system; students get in
by competitive examination (concours), the institutions are relatively
small, and classes in them small too. Many of the teaching staff in
"grandes écoles" are professionals or else academics from
universities, who do extra teaching at rates well in excess of the
hourly rate paid in universities.
The most famous Grande Ecole is "Polytechnique",
also known as "X", which was founded in 1794 as a school of public
engineering. It comes under the responsibility of the Ministry of
Defence, and students wear ceremonial military uniform, with tricorn
hats, for official occasions, such as graduation. Students follow 4
years of study, including a strong general science culture, and French
students have the status of army officers. Polytechnique is reputed as
one of the world's top "universities", and runs exchanges with other
institutions in the same league: MIT, Harvard, Stanford,
ICL, and others.
Another very high ranking school is the Ecole Normale d'Administration,
France's top institution for the training of future senior
servants (hauts fonctionnaires), top politicians and managers.
Other famous Grandes
Ecoles or Grands
Etablissements include the Ecole des Mines, Ecole Normale
(the top institution for arts subjects, originally for training
teachers for lycées), and world-class business and
such as HEC
(Hautes Etudes Commerciales), INSEAD (European
Institute of Administration) and Sciences
Po, the Institut
des Etudes Politiques de Paris, an autonomous state-funded
school of higher education.
Academics and Research.
Most academics in French higher education have the status of
"enseignant-chercheur" (teacher-researcher), and do both teaching and
research. Research in French universities has become far more
structured in recent years than in the past, and nowadays all
enseignants-chercheurs must belong to a "laboratory"; laboratories come
in all fields , from nuclear physics to mediaeval English literature.
There are two grades of tenured enseignants-chercheurs in
de conférence (corresponding to lecturers and
senior lecturers) and professors.
To gain appointment at either level, a candidate
through an arcanely French procedure known (as for degree courses) as
"habilitation". Foreign nationals can go through the habilitation
process, but it is something that must be initiated at least a year
before the candidate hopes to take up a teaching position. To become a
professor, a maître de conférence or professor
from another country,
must go through an even more complex habilitation, for which
is necessary to write what amounts to a second thesis. As a consequence
of this system, foreign academics – and even French academics
return from abroad, notably the USA – cannot enter the French
university system with anything like the ease of international
mobility that exists in most other countries, another factor that has
been detrimental to the development of French universities. There have
been many cases of French universities finding it impossible to recruit
highly qualified academics - French or foreign - to
professorships, due simply to their not having the required
"habilitation", or not getting it in time.
There are two other common categories of teaching staff in French
universities; those known as PRAGs (qualified secondary teachers), who
have no research requirement, and ATER - the equivalent of graduate
teaching assistants - who are usually completing their doctoral thesis.
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