1. Overview of Higher Education in France

The French system of higher education is distinguished by a diversity of institutions, courses, organisational arrangements and admission requirements.

Over 3500 different institutions offer higher education studies to over 2 million students.

In recent years universities have adopted the threefold European wide system of qualification (Bachelor, Masters, Doctorate) in line with EU agreements, but many universities have been slow to adapt, and a degree of confusion and resistance still exists.

In many respects higher education in France is also the ‘Cinderella’ of the education system.

The country spends less on higher education than many of the richer nations of Europe and the USA.

It actually spends a great deal more per pupil on secondary school education.

Many universities are regularly overspent each year, there is a lack of adequate research funding, and the level of capital investment is meagre.

There is a shortage of student accommodation in most cities and rents have risen beyond a level that most students can afford. The situation is particularly severe in Paris.

The system of financial assistance for students is very confusing and inadequate – there are many different grants available, from different agencies and levels of government. There are also significant delays in the payment of grant and loan support.

The culture of many universities is also very impersonal, with large classes and students left to their own devices.

The OECD places France 19th out of 26 in countries for the quality of higher education. In a regular annual review carried out by the University of Shanghai, France barely figures in the list of the best universities in the world.

Only around 40% of young French people pursue higher education, a figure lower than many other OECD countries.

Of those who attend, only 59% then complete their studies, 11% less than the average for developed countries. Around 40% of students fail before completing their second year.

Despite the cloak of nationally recognised diplomas and the ostensible equality of education there are also many inequalities in the system.

Children from poorer households are inadequately represented, and regional universities with close political ties are given greater priority than their neighbours.

Indeed, in many respects a two-speed system is in operation, with a few prestigous universities, (the grandes écoles and the technical institutes (IUT)) receiving better investment, and openly more selective admissions policies.

Thus, whilst the level of investment per university student is around €7,000 per year, the amount for a student in a grande école is nearer €14,000!

Politicians of all shades ‘talk the talk’ when it comes to the principle of equality but, like many things in France, it is not always the case that practice matches the theory!

To its credit, in recent years the French government has recognised there is a problem, and efforts are being made to improve things.

In recent years universities have been given greater autonomy in funding, staff and building construction, and the government has also promised a substantial increase in funding, beginning with the recruitment of around many new teaching and research staff.

A new building programme for student accommodation has started and some key universities have been identified for a major programme of investment.

The Government is also encouraging universities to spawn off their own research led business operations, and to seek partnerships with the private sector.

The system of student financial support has also been the subject of a major parliamentary report, although we await implementation of the recommendations. Improved student housing allowances have been introduced.

Greater efforts are being made to give more personal attention to students through the more widespread use of tutorial arrangements.

The Government has also announced that the grande écoles must make greater provision for those from disadvantaged households, to which end improved financial support will be available for the students.

The French Government have created a useful site on higher education, which is well worth consulting. Onisep is also a great official source of information.

Next: French Universities

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