Higher Education in France

In a previous article I discussed the French educational system, focusing on primary and secondary education. In this article, I will discuss French higher education, which can also seem as elaborate and labyrinthine as the passages connecting various wings of the Sorbonne.

France's University System

France’s university system dates back to the Middle Ages, with the establishment of l’université de Paris in the 12th century in the historic Sorbonne building. The university community of the Parisian schools has been European from as early as the 13th century, with its shared teaching models, Latin language use, and peregrinatio academica (academic mobility) among its students and instructors. In present decades, France has adjusted its cursus and degrees awarded according to the Bologna Process, which seeks to increase the compatibility between the tertiary educational systems of 48 participating European countries. In this way, units, courses of study, and degrees are more easily transferable from one country to the next.

In addition to universities, France has a group of institutions referred to as grandes écoles, which exist outside of the main framework of the university system and are highly selective. The term grande école originated with the establishment in 1794 of the École normale supérieure, the École polytechnique (originally the École centrale des travaux publics), and the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers. There are many more schools today considered to be grandes écoles, and many students enroll in two supplementary years of classes, called classes préparatoires, in order to pass the competitive entrance examination for these schools.

The front of the Sorbonne Building. | Source: Wikipedia

Enseignement supérieur


The goals of university education in France include the transmission of knowledge, the completion of research, and the conservation of findings and discoveries through its library system. In order to enter university, one must pass the baccalauréat, or bac, as it is often called, which is given at the end of the final year of study in a French lycée. French universities are open to all bachelières or bacheliers, those who have successfully taken the baccalauréat.

France’s universities are public and generally include the name of the city in which they are established, ergo the “Université de Paris” logo you may see on some sweatshirts. Recent mergers between universities have, however, resulted in other names being used, e.g., the merger between l’université Paris-Sorbonne and l’université Pierre-et-Marie-Curie into Sorbonne université on January 1, 2018. If you hear people still refer to l’université Paris-Sorbonne as a separate entity by calling it Paris-IV, this is because many people referred to the different facultés of the université de Paris by the numbers they were assigned under France’s 1968 Orientation Act that reformed higher education.

In addition to state universities, France has several Catholic universities, such as l’université catholique de Lyon which, like many other Catholic universities in recent years, has grown dramatically. The aforementioned UCLY had to relocate to an old prison in 2015 in order to support its enrollment. The sudden growth in Catholic universities is occurring despite elevated costs of up to 5,000€, as opposed to the 200-500€ needed for a public school.

l’université catholique de Lyon

In keeping with the Bologna process, French universities follow a cursus that more or less coincides with those of their fellow European participants. Courses that were formerly year-long, as was traditional in France, have become semester-long, although this initially proved difficult for some professors. The mentions for degrees completed are the same as those for completion of the baccalauréat: assez bien, bien, and très bien. The grading scale for classes is also the same, students being graded out of 20, with a 10 being a passing grade. The first three years at university lead to the conferral of a licence, the following two years to a master, and three more may lead to a doctorat.

Grandes écoles

As mentioned above, France’s grandes écoles operate outside the framework of the university system. They are very competitive and normally require two more years of preparation after high school in classes préparatoires, or prépas, which prepare students for a rigorous entrance examination. These classes préparatoires take place within high schools, such as the very well-known lycées Henry IV and Louis-le-Grand, both located in the center of Paris. Intensive training provided by the classes préparatoires includes oral examinations called interrogations orales or, less formally, colles.


Although there is no official list of France’s grandes écoles, they are distinguished by the rigorous entrance examinations required for those who wish to enroll and they feed into very secure and well-regarded positions within French society. These include elite positions in French government, such as the presidency, which is currently held by École nationale d’administration alumnus Emmanuel Macron. Students of this grande école, called ENA, as well as other grandes écoles, including the École normale supérieure (ENS), and the École polytechnique (X) are paid a stipend upon admittance, as they are considered civil servants. In keeping with their status as civil servants, these normaliennes and normaliens must give the French government ten years of civil service, including their studies.

Class sizes at grandes écoles are smaller than at universities, which can get so crowded they overflow. I remember seeing students seated on a stairwell leading to a classroom on the first day of a seminar at the Sorbonne, with the professor of the class taking roll by calling out names to all of the students gathered and the students in the stairwell then calling these names out to the people on the floor below. Although there are classes at grandes écoles, students there are encouraged to enroll in nearby universities, which award the diplomas mentioned above. Grandes écoles traditionally do not award diplomas, although graduates have the status of being grande école alumni.

There is rigorous training at a grande école for the concours d’agrégation which, if passed, allows the successful candidate, the agrégée or agrégé, to hold the position of a civil servant in the French educational system. Established in 1766, the agrégation consists of a written portion, during which most candidates are eliminated, and an oral portion, during which candidates must demonstrate their abilities to teach a specific subject at a very advanced level.

Other Characteristics of French Higher Education

A notable characteristic of the French system is a penchant for oral examinations. This happens at just about every level of study and is a reality that participants in this system need to face. For an oral presentation, it is important to know how to organize a topic so that it is clear to an audience listening to it in real time. Traditionally, there are no visual aids, and generally no handouts either, and the assumption is that the candidate will present the material at hand clearly and the examiners will listen attentively.

Another characteristic that distinguishes the French educational system is its emphasis on remaining secular. France’s emphasis on the separation between church and state has led to an insistence on eliminating conspicuous religious symbols at publicly run institutions. This has led to some controversy over issues such as headscarves that are worn for religious purposes. In the same vein, large rosaries hanging from friars’ robes must be reserved for Catholic campuses. I wonder what the policy is on tattoos, though, considering the massive amounts of tatouage I’ve seen lately, including shoulders tattooed with the Sanskrit syllable om, ॐ , the sonal incarnation of the divine described in the Yoga Sutras, the outline of yarmulkes tattooed on people’s heads (which obviously requires the maintenance of a more or less bald head in order to be visible), and images of Jesus Christ and his mother Mary, along with crosses, tattooed on biceps and forearms. I never thought concealer would be a requirement for tertiary studies, but perhaps the scholarships that are given by the French government would cover some of the cost.

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Difficulties with French spelling are related to phonetic values that vary widely according to context, a good number of homophones, and letters that remain unpronounced. The endings -er and -ez, for example, represent the same sound as -é /e/, and I see these interchanged all the time – by native speakers, no less. One of the strangest aspects of the written language is the third person plural conjugation of verbs, whose -ent ending is sil-ent! (Get it? I just noticed that myself.) One interesting characteristic of French is that while the modern spoken form of the language has gone through quite a lot of phonetic changes since the Middle Ages, the spelling has not and largely reflects the pronunciation of Old French. • • •  Read our blog article "5 Structural Difficulties and Solutions when Learning French" for more details! • • •  #glossika #glossikafrench #french #learnfrench #studyfrench #frenchlanguage #fluency #speakfrench #frenchspelling #speaking

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