Why study in France?
France has long been one of the world’s top academic locations. Despite certain dominance of Anglo-Saxon universities, which is largely due to the dominance of English as the international medium of communication, it’s certainly not true that French higher education is behind the US and the UK.
France especially has a formidable heritage in engineering and technical education. On the other hand, humanities and social sciences are almost equally strong, not in the least when it comes to the French specialties such as discourse studies or post-structuralist philosophy. There are several universities which are fairly open to international students. Sciences Po in Paris offers many English language political science courses. The recently established Paris School of Economics has the ambition to compete with the best economics schools in the world. Tuition is entirely in English and provided by some of France’s most respected economists.
The main obstacle is generally the language. The universities in France have not opened up to the world to such a degree that they would habitually offer courses in English. On the contrary, proof of French language skills is rigorously demanded. Also, it is true that in contrast to their US or UK counterparts, French universities tend to be less effectively run. They are rather hierarchically and inflexibly organized and often it takes long to resolve administrative issues. And an especially disheartening experience, in the 21st century, comes from browsing the websites of French universities, which are often badly organized and presented.
In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon world, missing accreditation is generally not a problem in France. If something is called a university, then it is properly accredited and recognized as such.
Reputation and quality
Unlike the British and the Americans, the French don’t really organize or follow rankings. They pretty much understand which schools are good and difficult to get into, and which are not.
The first line of categorization is between universities and grandes écoles. This is something that outsiders struggle with, but universities are actually not the most prestigious higher education establishments in France. There is a special layer of teaching institutions, grandes écoles, which enjoy many privileges. Unlike universities, which have to accept any French student from the given region who has a high school diploma (a Bac), grandes écoles are allowed to apply selection procedures. These are strict and students spend a long time preparing for the tests. Actually, it is not possible to enter some of the grandes écoles straight away, one must spend two years in preparatory classes.These schools are very well funded, they account for 70 percent of government’s higher education spending. There are other perks. For example the graduates of École nationale d’administration (ENA) have a special track in public administration, they advance quicker up the ranks than other civil servants. Half of the CEOs of the top 200 companies in France are ENA graduates. As is the majority of the country’s political élite (former president Nicholas Sarkozy being a notable exception).
Other famous grandes écoles include three technical schools, École polytechnique, École des mines and École nationale des ponts et chausées. All three are now grouped, together with a few other institutions, into a federative arrangement known as ParisTech.
For social sciences and humanities, there is the super prestigious École Normale Supérieure (ENS), France’s intellectual powerhouse that has produced 12 Nobel laureates and 10 Fields Medal ones. Among the alumni you will find social scientists, philosophers, literary figures and generally famous intellectuals such Émile Durkheim, Jean-Paul Sartre, Raymond Aron, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and many others.
Then there is also a purely graduate school for social sciences, École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS). For business studies, the top school is traditionally Haute études commerciales (HEC). Founded in the 19th century, this is actually the oldest business school in the world. There is another famous business school, Insead.
In contrast to grandes écoles (or grands etablissements, which is the official title of some of them), universities cannot apply selection tests for French students. Anybody who graduated from a high school can theoretically enter. Many students enter the university, but later drop out (or, rather, are dropped through insufficient grades). The best known French university is the Sorbonne, which, ironically, no longer exists. The French usually refer to one of the first four Paris universities (Paris I to Paris IV) as the Sorbonne. Old Sorbonne buildings (see picture) form the backbone of Quartier latin, Paris' university quarter.
Graduate students need to know that in order to conduct research, one does not necessarily join a university, as France has a strong tradition of research institutes that are relatively independent of universities. Most of them are under the umbrella of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS).
How to apply
To apply for a place in an undergraduate programme, you need to go (just like in the UK) through a centralized system, Admission Post-Bac. There are no standardized tests (unlike with the SATs in the US). Beside documentation proving successful high school graduation you will need proof of French language proficiency. This usually means either TCF DAP (Test de connaissance du français, Demande d’admission préalable) or DALF (Diplôme approfondi de langue française).
Costs, scholarships and financial aid
Study is essentially for free. You have to pay administrative fees, which, depending on the school, can come up to a few hundred euro a year. France is not excessively expensive to live in, except for Paris. Students enjoy generally very cheap food in student cafeterias. As for scholarships and financial aid, there is no really centralized system of financial aid. One way to look is to use the portal CNOUS, another option is CampusBourses and graduate students can also use Erasmus Mundus. Another way is to enquire with the individual universities or at the French embassy, which might post notices of special scholarship schemes tailored for the particular countries they are in.
Did you know...
One of the most prestigious “schools”, Collège de France, is actually no school? This institution (pictured on the right) is the academic Parnassus, to be a member is an honour enjoyed only by France’s best minds. Collège de France is housed in the centre of the university quarter Quartier Latin. The fellows are mostly busy with their research and publications but, interestingly, they are also required to give periodic free lectures that can be attended by anybody who has an interest.
That France’s ancient university, the Sorbonne, was abolished by the government in 1970, following student riots and sit-ins in the previous two years? It was broken up into today’s 13 universities, which are usually known by their numbers, as Paris I, Paris II, and so on. Three of these have kept “Sorbonne” as part of their name (Paris I Pantheon-Sorbonne, Paris III Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle and Paris IV Paris-Sorbonne).
France, just like some other European countries, has a learned society, whose fellows are senior academics? It is called Institut de France.