There are many benefits to pursuing a French education – it's largely free, some institutions are among the best in the world, and most of all: it's in France, with all the wonderful culture, food, easygoing approach to life and proximity to home that that implies.
If you want to study in France at any level below a PhD, you must be fluent in French. English might help for some courses, but by and large it will be very difficult to avoid stringent language requirements, not to mention the inconvenience of everyday life.
Undergraduate or Postgraduate?
The best of French education cannot be accessed at the undergraduate level. A good tactic may be to achieve a strong degree in the UK and then cap your education with a world-renowned course at one of the top écoles in Paris. In the following sections, we provide some background to studying in this delightful city, as well as in-depth information about three of the top institutions.
Background – Les Écoles et les Universités
The French education system takes some getting used to, but you will eventually come to love its quirky incomprehensibility. French students all take the baccalaureate exam (le bac) at the age of 18 – the equivalent of A levels. For most people, the results are not hugely important, because if they want to go to university, they can choose any university they want and can attend free of charge. There is no selection process at any French university. All universities are public and open to all.
It’s very important to make the distinction between universitésand écoles. Uni in the USA reviews two “écoles” and one non-categorisable institute, but does not be review any of the “universités” – although they are numerous, and many are worth looking into.
Most universités are known for their specialisation in a certain field. As there are no limits to enrolment, the first year or two of bachelor studies can be very over-crowded (and the dropout rate is high) – you sometimes hear reports of students forced to listen through the doors of lecture halls because there’s no space to sit or even stand inside.
However, some students opt for a different track of higher education. Instead of going to a université, they attend a CPGE (classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles), also known as aprépa (preparatory school) for two years. These institutions are very intense, training students rigorously in a wide range of subjects with the sole focus on passing an entrance exam at the end. Those who do the best on this ultra-competitive exam are able to attend the be-all-and-end-all of French education: anécole (literally, “school”).
There are several écoles both in Paris and in other parts of France. Like the universités, most focus on a particular subject, such as music or maths. A few are more general. Typically, students leaving the prépas will spend their first year at theécole finishing their bachelor degree, before going on to a two- or three-year masters course.
The distinction is not very important, however, since no one leaves after the bachelors – the experience is conceptualised as one overarching educational tour de force, after which you can officially say that you are the product of an école. This is one of the highest accolades in French society, and as such, is sought ruthlessly by all ambitious students.
Educational Culture and Hierarchy
French culture hinges on a contradiction. On the one hand, it is founded in on the values of the Revolution of 1789 – liberté,fraternité, and most importantly, egalité (equality). Alongside secularism, equality is the deeply entrenched official dogma – and this includes the unquestionable status of free education for all. On the other hand, French society remains noticeably hierarchical, especially in all things educational.
The sense of hierarchy is extremely powerful, and leads to an environment of hardcore competition and constant striving to excel above and beyond one’s peers. In the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), there is a monument to those who were taken away to concentration camps in WWII. The names are arranged not alphabetically, but in order of exam results.
The importance attached to academic prowess is entrenched in every part of the system. Brits may be surprised at the level of deference expected of them towards teachers and professors. They are the lords of academia and as such do not associate with lowly students. You cannot say “hi” to your teachers in the street. You must begin your emails “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam”, and even then you shouldn't expect them to deign to reply.
The École Student
Among the students, relations are more sociable. However, various prejudices and elitist tendencies remain. At some écoles, including the ENS, those who passed the entrance exam are literally and figuratively “scholars” – officially known as élèves(pupils), and supposedly superior to the minority of plain oldétudiants (students) who got in just by having a good overall profile and who do not receive money from the institution.Élèves are often considered snobbish or arrogant, with students from the French paysage (the countryside – effectively anywhere that’s not Paris) considered educationally inferior to those from the capital.
International students occupy a kind of middle ground – most have passed competitive exams and are respected for it, but they are not as exalted as full scholars. A very small minority of French students may even give vent to xenophobic prejudices, or express distaste at the notion of foreigners using up valuable places at French écoles. In the vast majority of cases, students are welcoming and friendly. Brits are advised to cope with any unpleasant attitudes with a healthy detachment and a sense of humour.
Some words of warning – British students who have just completed an undergraduate degree and are starting at an écolemay be shocked at the lack of maturity of their French counterparts. These students are academically high-flying, but to become so they have spent most of their teenage lives at intense boarding schools, living with other students, or with their families, and experiencing very little of the real world. While international students may be worldly-wise and experienced, these kids are fresh-faced and living the dream. Many indulge in quite a lot of drinking and partying, though not to an extent that comes close to the British binge culture.
French academia is based in the rich but potentially overpowering cult of the glorious, if miserable, intellectual – great figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michele Foucault, Émile Durkheim and more are revered and emulated, and their excellence is set up as an impossible yard-stick for future generations.
All tests are out of 20, and the magic number is 10 – this is la moyenne (the average), which is considered a great achievement and a lot harder to get than you might think. The highest compliment in French education is to be known as someone who always gets la moyenne. Exam results are published publicly for all to read and discuss.
Along with the competition goes the ideal of a distinguished career in academia or the civil service. Students and teachers at the top écoles may think you’re a loser if you don’t want to do a PhD, but don’t let them deter you from abandoning the life of research that they worship and pursuing the career you’d actually like to have.
The Demands of a French Uni Education
By French standards, the écoles are academically demanding and among the most intense academic institutions in the country. However, some international students, especially those from the UK and North America, find that the pace of life is slower, and the academic work not as tough as comparable institutions at home. Oxbridge students in particular will find their work-load considerably diminished. The major stress in French education comes before the école – once inside, many students tend to let themselves relax a bit more.
The academic process has a few key differences to that in the UK. Expect a lot of rote learning. French primary and secondary schools operate by making students do a lot of memorising, and this system continues to a certain extent into higher education. Also expect some very long lectures – two hours is standard. But cigarette or lunch breaks are very important to the French, and the teaching schedule always observes them.
In the sciences, there is a strong focus on maths and physics, while the humanities are based around philosophy and literature. The emphasis on ideas often comes at the expense of solid description and the ability to get your point across; indeed, many students report a stress on style over substance, particularly at the more high-flying unis like the ENS.
Clever writing, well-constructed arguments and elegant prose will get you as many if not more marks than what you actually say. A key part of this is the so–called “Hegelian” essay structure, consisting of an argument in favour of something, an argument against, and a final section resolving the two. Each of the three sections should themselves be structured in three parts. Deviation from this vaunted format will raise many eyebrows, while potentially lowering marks.
While we're on the subject – be warned that the French highly value their beautiful, scripted and old-fashioned style of handwriting. The drawback to this elegance is a certain lack of legibility for those not used to deciphering such flowing fonts. It can be difficult to read the notes written by lecturers on blackboards. Also be wary of the strangely designed French keyboards, which seem to be arranged to cause maximum annoyance for Brits used to the letters/symbols being in different places. Bring your own laptop from the UK.
French universities have very centralised power structures. Again, there are strong hierarchical tendencies evident in the administration. Students, inevitably, are bottom of the heap – not only is it difficult to achieve first name terms with professors, but you may feel like an anonymous nobody in a faceless crowd. The powers that be are unlikely to care about you in the slightest, and tend to let students get on with things under their own steam. This can be liberating, but also disconcerting for Brits used to notions such as “pastoral care”.
A tragically extreme example of this occurred at the ENS in 2010 when a student killed himself in a toilet and was not discovered for a week. Nothing was said or altered. Students watched from their classroom as the body was carried out, while the professor simply continued speaking. It wasn’t until the Catholic society announced it would hold a mass for the unfortunate student that the authorities made any statement at all. It may not be a coincidence that Durkheim wrote his famous study of suicide while at the ENS.
Paris is for ... Students?
International students love it here. Paris is in many ways what it says on the tin, and it’s hard to think of many places on Earth more imbued with charm and culture; the soul of the city is emblematic around the world.
Quintessentially romantic, perpetually grey-skied, full of extraordinary people, possessed of a disarming self- confidence, packed with fascinating nooks and captivating crannies, ancient winding streets, old but glorious buildings, an astonishing history, cynicism to rival London or New York – the list goes on. It may not be as big as these cities, but it packs the same punch, and most see its moderate size as an advantage.
Paris is almost unparalleled in what it can offer the urban student. The dominant culture is affectionately/derisively called “bobo” – a contraction of bourgeois and bohemian. This is a reference to the organic, artsy and alternative scene adopted by the wealthier sections of society. Money is unfortunately a prerequisite for a good time in Paris, and Brits might find student culture more polished and less alternative than many parts of London.
High-flying students at the écoles have their own scholarships and can live quite well; international students can also receive money, but many are not given any financial support and must be prepared to go it alone in one of the most expensive places on earth. Bobo has banished most working-class areas to the unfashionable suburbs, where life is less exciting but probably a bit cheaper.
If it’s museums, theatre, art, music (especially jazz), or any number of other cultural forms that you’re after, you’d be pressed to find anywhere better to live than the French capital. Under-25s are eligible for cheap tickets to many events, and regional travel to nearby attractions is reduced or free on the weekends. Lovely leafy districts, small and large parks and pleasant little squares throughout the city provide excellent places to sit, relax, and escape city life. Lounging on the banks of the Seine in the summer is a particularly pleasant student pastime.
The French love a strike. Be prepared for frequent transport failures, building occupations (even on campus) and general nuisances, such as loud demonstrations outside your classroom/bedroom window. You will get used to these inconveniences, and you should certainly feel free to join in if you’re so inclined!
If you don’t get your accommodation provided by youruniversité or école, then you shouldn’t underestimate what you’re up against in finding somewhere both affordable and bearable to live. Parisian rents make London look cheap. Many students end up in the infamous chambres de bonne (maid’s rooms) – tiny attics at the top of 7–story apartment blocks, usually without their own bathroom facilities. Most students whose campuses are in the centre of the city live at the other end of a 40–50 minute commute, and most flat-share. Check Fusac, the English language newspaper, for ads.
An excellent option, but very difficult to secure, is a room in the Cité International Universitaire, a makeshift campus in the south of the city for international students of any kind. Each country has its own house, with its own quirks and sub–cultures, where you can stay with fellow countrymen at cheaper-than-normal rates.
The campus has its own library, sports facilities, theatre (excellent programme, apparently), bar, metro stop and more, though it is not attached to any one university, and has no teaching or intellectual environment. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get a place in the Cité without knowing someone already living there. Some universities will guarantee you a room there for a month on your arrival until you find somewhere else.
The French social security system may provide you with a small one-off or yearly grant of €100 – €300 towards housing costs, on presentation of the necessary documents. This is done through the Caisse d’Allocations Familiales (Family Allocations Office, or CAF), whose website is in French only.
Information on studying France is abundant at the super-helpful website of what was once called EduFrance but is now CampusFrance.