Universities in France take an important place in the intellectual landscape of Europe. Many of them have a rich history going way back to the 12th century. For the longest time, French universities were considered the most prestigious institutions in the world alongside the University of Oxford and Bologna, so they were available only to upper classes of society. Today, the policy of the French Ministry of Education is quite liberal and seeks to make the French education as attractive and accessible as humanly possible.

Advantages of French universities

  • Areas of study. Humanitarian sciences (ancient and modern history, archaeology, art history), mathematics, engineering and IT are the most popular and sought after fields among the students.
  • Grandes écoles of fine arts. Historically France has been the center of creative and cultural activities, attracting the most talented people from around the world. According to the US News rating, France ranks 2nd in world cultural influence, just after Italy[1]. There are about 50 art schools and conservatories directly reporting to the Ministry of Culture[2].
  • The rich history of universities. France has four of the most ancient Universities of Europe, founded in 13-15 centuries: Sorbonne Université, Université fédérale de Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées, Université de Montpellier, and Aix-Marseille Université. Despite their closure during the French Revolution in 1793, they were reopened in 1896 and are operational to this day.
  • Low cost of tuition. The cost of studying at public universities in France does not exceed 411 USD per year for EU/EEA and Swiss students and 4,330 USD per year for other international students. This is significantly less than in other European countries, for example, Italy or Spain.

Disadvantages of French universities

  • Huge workloads and high-intensity training. French universities maintain a very high educational standard. This is especially true for grandes écoles and their preparatory classes. Students are expected to devote a lot of their time to independent studies outside of school hours. Many students say that it is very easy to fall behind the curriculum, and it is very difficult to catch up with it.
  • Poor funding and class overcrowding. The undergraduate programs at state universities accept all applicants who match the stated selection criteria. Coupled with the lack of funding it creates various problems ranging from the lack of lecture halls to desks and study materials.
  • The difficulty in finding a job. According to the OECD world ranking, France takes the seventh place in unemployment[3] ratings. Speaking French will not guarantee employment. In addition, the task is further complicated by the meticulous bureaucracy and the bias against foreigners.

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Requirements for admission to universities in France

ProgramMin. ageDurationMin costAvg. costMin. language lvlExam EnglishExam French
Prof. Education — DUT18+2 years184 USD/year184 USD/yearB2IELTS 5.5DELF B2
Foundation -
18+2-4 years184 USD/year2,165 USD/yearB2IELTS 5.5DELF B2
Undergraduate — License18+3 years184 USD/year10,824 USD/yearB1-B2IELTS 5.0-5.5DELF B2
Master's21+2 years263 USD/year12,989 USD/yearB2-C1IELTS 5.5-7.0DALF C1
MBA21+10-16 months41,674 USD/year60,617 USD/yearC1IELTS 7.0DALF C1
Doctoral23+3-5 years411 USD/year6,495 USD/yearC1IELTS 7.0DALF C1

The minimum costs above are applicable only to European students at public universities. Starting in September 2019 France introduced higher fees for students from countries outside the EU/EE: 2,998 USD/year for undergraduate programs, 4,081 USD/year for master's programs However, the fees for doctoral programs remained the same — 411 USD/year[4].

Universities do not conduct entrance examinations, therefore, anyone who has correctly submitted a full package of required documents can enter a freshman year. The main source of information for any student wishing to study in France is the website of the national agency for the promotion of higher education — Campus France.

Admission for citizens of countries affected by the Etudes en France procedure
The Etudes en France is mandatory for citizens of the following 44 countries: Algeria, Argentina, Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Burundi Cameroon, Chile, China, Colombia, Comoros, the Republic of the Congo, South Korea, Ivory Coast, Egypt, United States, Gabon, Guinea, Haïti, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Madagascar, Mali, Morocco, Mauritius, Mauritania, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, Senegal, Singapore, Taiwan, Tchad, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey and Vietnam. To apply to the first year of Licence (Bachelor’s) level a student must fill out an applicant's admission form through Parcoursup and then follow the steps of the Etudes en France process until obtaining a visa. But that is only for high schools students. A student of another degree course must make a Preliminary Admission Request (DAP) before moving on to the Etudes en France procedure. Please note that the list of academic choices available in the application is limited to three universities at the same time. To apply directly to year 2 or 3 of License or for a Master’s programme a student must contact the institutions directly and turn to the Etudes en France. Applicants at a doctoral level are also free to contact Doctoral schools independently, but the next step after being accepted is applying for a special type of long-stay visa — researcher-talent passport. No matter what the case, a student is always subject to support of the Campus France office in their country of residence. The following documents may be requested:
  • Original passport;
  • The original and notarized translation of proof of the previous qualifications (or statements of grades for the last three years of study, if the documents are submitted before graduation) into French or English;
  • Language certificate.
In the absence of a language certificate or diploma, the student must undergo TCF DAP testing, organized by the French Ministry of Education in one of the official centers. Please note that the admission scheme may vary if the university is not connected to Campus France.
Admission for European students
The students are considered to be "European" provided they are from the countries included in the EU, EEA plus Switzerland, Monaco or Andorra. Actually the only specific procedure for them is applying in the first year of study at Licence (Bachelor’s) level. That is what the Parcoursup platform is designed for. The rest of degree courses (the 2nd or 3rd year of a Bachelor's, a Master's or Doctorate degree) can be reached just by directly contacting the institutions of interest.
Admission for non-European students
Non-European students not affected by the Etudes en France procedure must file in a preliminary request for admission (Demande d'Admission Préalable — DAP) with the French Embassy in order to enter the first year of Licence (Bachelor’s) programme. To enrol in the other degree levels a student must contact the institutions concerned. The same is applicable to non-Europeans living in Europe even if their country of origin is affected by the Etudes en France procedure. Still either a student visa or a researcher-talent passport visa (for doctorate courses) is to be obtained.

Almost all grandes écoles accept students only after completing the preparatory courses CPGE. Great school entrance examinations may include exams, interviews, or portfolio assessments. They usually last for several weeks.

On the other hand, engineering grandes écoles can be entered immediately after school, because the program of the first two years of study repeats the program CPGE. Such a system is considered to be better for several reasons: firstly, students are not just preparing to pass entrance exams, but from the very beginning they study subjects related to the field they are interested in, and secondly, students experience way less stress when passing through entrance tests once, and not twice.

Types of educational institutions in France

French higher education institutions can be divided into three groups:

Universities (Universités) belong to the state. In total there are about 70 of them in France. After the reform of French education, some universities were united under one name with the corresponding number. For example, the name University of Lyon is carried by three different universities with numbers 1, 2 and 3. Admission to such universities is free for all students who have completed high school in France or its equivalent in another country.

Great schools (Grandes écoles) — a group of educational institutions, which includes the most famous and prestigious universities in the country. In France, there are more than 200[5]. It trains highly qualified specialists in the field of engineering, management, economics, military affairs, education and culture. All schools have the right to set their own entrance examinations. In addition, private schools themselves determine the cost of training, in connection with which it can reach quite high values ​​(up to 43,298 USD per year). Great schools are of the following types:

  • Normal grandes écoles (Écoles normales supérieures, ENS) train specialists in the academic field — scientists and professors. There are four such universities in France: two in Paris (Ulm and Paris-Saclay), one in Lyon and one in Rennes. ENS have many partnerships, both within France and around the world. Studying at normal grande école is considered very prestigious, but getting here is quite difficult — every year the university accepts only 20 foreign students.
  • Engineering grandes écoles (grandes écoles d'ingénieurs) offer not only specialized practically oriented education but also a broad range of general education in the fields of business management, humanities, and social sciences. École Polytechnique is considered to be the most famous among French engineering grandes écoles; it occupies 60th place in the global QS rating[6].
  • Business grandes écoles (grandes écoles de commerce), most of which are owned by the Chambers of Commerce or commercial organizations. The European Institute of Business Administration INSEAD takes the 2nd place in the world ranking of business schools, bested only by Harvard[7].
  • Grandes écoles for future public servants (Écoles d'accès aux corps de la haute fonction publique) are divided into administrative and military. Almost all accept only French citizens and students from the countries of the Eurozone.

Specialized schools of art are divided into several groups:

Other universities (Écoles extérieures aux universités) operate outside the system of universities and grandes écoles. They are managed by their own administrative council with the assistance of the Academic Council and the Council on Education and Student Life. This group of universities includes technical universities, national universities of applied sciences, as well as central schools (Écoles Centrales) in Lyon, Lille, Marseille and Nantes. For admission, you must complete the preparatory courses and pass the entrance tests.

Vocational education in France

Vocational education in France corresponds to la filière courte - a short trajectory of higher education. It involves training in technical and scientific universities for two years for future employment in the service sector or production industry. There are two types of programs: DEUST and DUT.

The first option — diplôme d'études universitaires scientifiques et techniques - has a narrower range of available areas and was created primarily to meet local needs for specialists.

The second option — diplôme universitaire de technologie - the most common. Obtaining DUT is possible at technical institutes (institut universitaire de technologie, IUT) and at the National Conservatory of Arts and Trades (Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, CNAM). There are 113 such institutes in France; they are located at university bases and offer training in 24 different areas: commerce, production, transportation, construction, IT, etc. The schedule consists of theoretical and practical classes, as well as independent projects. In addition, each student is required to undergo an internship at the workplace with a length of at least 10 weeks.

Admission is supervised by the Campus France system in the same way as admission to other universities. Students are accepted on the basis of their performance in the previous place of study. Some institutes conduct entrance examinations in the form of tests or interviews.

After the DUT, you can immediately find a job or continue your education on the appropriate programs in the university Licence or grandes école (DUT serves as the equivalent of CPGE).

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Public and private universities in France

18% of students in France attend private universities[10]. The status of a private university means that they do not belong to the state. However, some of them have the right to issue state diplomas. In this case, the university receives partial funding, since the state needs to provide students with a level of education worthy of a national diploma. This applies, for example, to the five Catholic universities of France (in Paris, Lille, Angers, Lyon and Toulouse), as well as some engineering and business schools.

Private institutions other than Catholic universities may include:

  • High schools (lycée), offering preparation before enrolment to grandes école (CPGE) and vocational education (brevet de technicien supérieur, BTS).
  • Nonprofit organizations: University Associations, for example, Fédération des établissements d'enseignement supérieur d'intérêt collectif (FESIC) or charity-based universities such as EPF École d'ingénieur.
  • Commercial universities, e.g. Paris School of Business, Ecole de Commerce International et Marketing à Paris or Ecole de Gestion et Finance à Paris.
  • Consular universities that cannot be considered private in the general sense of the word. Despite belonging to the Chamber of Commerce, they are assigned to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. 27 business schools (HES Paris, Emlyon, etc.) and 7 engineering universities are considered to be consular.

France has a law under which private universities are not allowed to include the word "university" in their name, as well as to issue bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees[11]. At the same time, those private institutions in which the number of professors is equal to their minimum number at any other public university can take the name “faculté libre[12]. The name “engineering school” and the corresponding authority are issued to private universities by a special accreditation commission — commission des titres d'ingénieur (CTI)[13]. Given all of the above, diplomas and certificates of private institutions can be recognized by the state.

According to the law on higher education, adopted in France in 2013, universities founded by non-profit organizations can apply for recognition by the state. By September 1, 2019, 61 private non-profit universities were awarded a state qualification, établissement d'enseignement supérieur privé d'intérêt général (EESPIG)[14].

In addition to the above disadvantages, private organizations differ from state ones in the high cost of training — the average price is 12,989 USD per year.

On the bright side, there are fewer students in private universities (only 18% of the total number of students go there) and better funding.

Groups and associations of French universities

Starting in 2016, universities and research centers can join to form special associations — COMUE (COMmunautés d'Universités et Établissements). They replaced the existing PRES (Pôles de recherche et d'Enseignement supérieur), in contrast to which COMUE can issue degrees and have a specialized budget. The purpose of associations is to coordinate training programs and research areas, as well as facilitate the transfer of students between participating universities[15]. Today in France there are 19 COMUE. The largest association is Université Fédérale Toulouse-Midi-Pyrénées, which unites more than 30 educational institutions of Occitania. And one more — Université Paris-Sciences-et-Lettres or PSL — takes 53 place in the ranking of the best universities in the world according to QS[6].

Free universities in France

France is one of the few countries where one can study at public universities almost for free. Tuition fees do not exceed 411 USD/year for European Students and 4,081 USD/year for non-EU/EEA students. Moreover, both the French government and many French universities offer their students a large number of scholarships that will significantly or completely cover the cost of education.

A complete list of scholarships with all relevant information on their receipt can be found in a special section of the Campus France website and its catalogue — Campus Bourses.

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Interesting facts about French universities

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