(asked by Harmony from the UK)

Could you possibly explain to a confused foreigner how the French education system works, if you continue in education after you take the baccalauréat? I’ve looked up various websites, including the Wikipedia entry for ‘classes préparatoires’ and have French friends I’ve asked, but I find it hard to separate out hard fact from a kind of snobbery (based around the fact that one friend tried repeatedly to get into ENA and has not quite got over failing, and another went to Sciences Po and can’t seem to forget that either…) I grasp there are layers of meaning and elitism here that I’m not getting as a Brit from outside the system.

Can it really be the case that French universities will accept almost any applicant, and all the good people go on to the tiny number of places in the Grandes Ecoles, so the universities get the ‘failures’? And that every big shot in France went to a GE? Does it really set you up for life? And what’s with all that ‘khagnes’-type slang?

It’s not that I don’t get elitism - we have Oxbridge in the UK, after all - but for some reason I find it odder in France…

And I thought I had tackled all the sensitive topics. Wanna start a heated debate among French people? Forget politics or religion, try higher education issues instead.

First -and I see that by your question- there seems to be some sort of obsession with Grandes Ecoles from the part of certain foreigners when they talk about the French education system. I guess it’s because they want to find an equivalent to Oxbridge, the Ivy League and other similar “elite” schools.
Thing is Grandes Ecoles are quite a minor thing in France which reputation is quite overrated. A little bit like the Sorbonne.

And I just checked the Wikipedia entry in English about French higher education, and it’s not that great and precise at all (the French one is though is you can read French)

But let’s start with the beginning; that is the baccalauréat (aka the “bac”).
And I gotta warn you I’m gonna draw a lot from my memories from back when I was in high school and then an undergraduate student. Certain things may have change a bit since then.

So, you’re a French high school student, and you just passed your bac and are graduating from high school (actually, this topic is quite timely as this year, the results will be announced this Tuesday July 7th!).
What’s next for you?
Well, you have a wide range of choices. I’m going to try to forget as few as possible.
Let’s start with the Grandes Ecoles as we’ve already mentioned them.
Grandes Ecoles are quite hard to define as there’s no official status that tells that a school is a Grande Ecole, except for the fact that it has to be highly selective and to provide a very good education.
And yes, it’s usually really hard to get into a Grande Ecole, to the point that very few students go there straight from high school. One usually needs to go through a “Classe Préparatoire” (Preparing Class) before that, which is one or two years of classes that prepares you to get into a specific Grande Ecole. You usually don’t get there by applying to the school, but by taking an exam that will decide whether you’re accepted or not, the Classe Préparatoire preparing you to that exam.

The number one misconception coming from abroad about these schools is that if it’s so hard to get in, only the best French students go there.
It’s not exactly true for several reasons:
-Like everything else in French higher education, your major will influence where you’ll go study. Keep in mind that after high school in France, every class you’re going to take will be in your major, gone are the general education classes, and every school provides certain numbers of majors and certain classes. If you want to be something or study something that has no Grande Ecole related to it, you won’t apply to a Grande Ecole, why would you do it, even if you’re the best student that France has ever seen.
-Most Grandes Ecoles are not free (at least the Classes Préparatoires are not) and as France is a country where most of the education is free (or close to it) at every level, the population is not used to spend a lot of money for school, and it’s not only the population, it’s pretty much the whole country (i.e. student loans are not that common in banks, etc.) so a bright student coming from a poor background has very little chances to ever go to a Grande Ecole.
-There’s also a geography factor going on (even if it’s minor): because the way the system is set French students are not used to go study very far from home, so if a Grande Ecole is located pretty far from one’s hometown, chances are that he/she won’t apply to it. And as most Grandes Ecoles are in or around Paris, the non-Parisian population is less likely to go to a Grande Ecole than Parisian students.

Which brings us to the second part of our section about the Grandes Ecoles, that is their prestige. Very often, people out of a Grande Ecole will be… full of themselves for lack of another expression (well, there are other expressions, but I like this one). They just spent the past few years hearing that they were the best and the elite of the nation, and we can’t totally blame them if they believe it.
What about the rest of the French people? Do they revere and envy people from the Grandes Ecoles?
No, not exactly. Most of them don’t really care at all. I have the feeling that the only people that are not from a Grande Ecole and that care are those who wanted to go and didn’t, a certain (conservative and Parisian?) population that base their view of the world on the concepts of social class, elite, material wealth as the only criteria for success and so on, and people in certain fields were having a degree from a Grande Ecole is important. Because, once again, you must remember that any given school will provide one type of education leading to one (or a few) diplomas.
And this is in that aspect that Grandes Ecoles are really different from let’s say Harvard or Oxford.
When you graduate from Oxbridge or an Ivy League school, you have a degree in pretty much any major one can think of, so yeah, wherever you go, it’s prestigious. But if you graduate from let’s say HEC, you’ll have a degree in business, as HEC is a Grande Ecole that provided education in business and business only. So sure, your degree will be very prestigious in the business world, but will be worth squat in pretty much any other field.

Finally, when dealing with Grandes Ecoles, one must not forget that very often, the hardest is to get in. Once there, one can almost slack one’s way to graduating.
This last statement may be a little exaggerated, but it’s true that prestigious schools want to stay prestigious, and a sure way to do that is to have a high percentage of graduating people as it would look bad to have drop-outs in those schools.

Which brings us to the second type of higher education one can have in France, and that is the university.
And while it’s true that there’s no selection process to go to a university, it’s not true that only the worst students go there (when they were accepted nowhere else for example). For one can get certain degrees in universities only, especially doctorate degrees. Whether it’s a PhD, a MD or any other doctorate degree, if you want one, you’ll have to go to a university, Grandes Ecoles can be as prestigious and as elite as they want, they don’t deliver Doctorate degrees. And I don’t know what you think, but for me, the most prestigious and elite degree one can get stays the doctorate.

This is how universities work in France:
-You don’t apply to them and go through a selection process.
-You just graduate from high school, and are allowed to go to the university that matches your major and that’s in your “académie” (administrative subdivisions for education that are geographical), even though it’s possible to go to an university not in your “académie” under certain circumstances (I forgot which ones).
-Universities are “major oriented”; to my knowledge, there’s no university in France that offers every major. For example, in Toulouse (second city in France in number of students after Paris), there are three universities: one for humanities, one for “hard” sciences and one for “social” sciences (economy, law, etc.).
-While there’s no selection to get into a university, it’s false that there’s no selection at all, as the drop-out rare is huge (more than 50% I think) as grading is based on a drastic pass/fail system (where passing is quite hard… I want to say you need more or less the equivalent of an American B+ to pass a class) and you get kicked out of the university after failing a certain number of classes (and believe me, the number of students that never failed a class is pretty low).
-They’re relatively cheap.
-They offer a variety of degrees, all based on the Bachelor’s (Licence), Master’s (Maîtrise), Doctorate (Doctorat) pattern.
-Universities are (in theory at least) all equal to each other, there’s no university that better than another one (in theory at least), and that includes the Sorbonne. That school is very important because it’s the oldest university in France (and maybe in the world I think), but while it’s far from being a bad school, it’s definitely not the best either, contrarily to what many foreigners think.

And if you don’t mind I’ll talk more into details of “life” in a French university another day (all the more technical and specific aspects).

But universities and Grandes Ecoles are not the only higher education institutions we have in France. We also have the BTS and the DUT. These two degrees are more or less similar except in the fact that the BTS is more professionally oriented, while the DUT is more academically oriented.
You see, one major problem of French higher education is that it tends to be cut from the “real world” and the job market.
BTS and DUTs were created in the goal to link education and then “real world” more closely.
These two types of degrees are delivered after two years of study in a very specific field of studies in which the student will become really proficient and “ready-to-work” as soon as he’s out of school. That is being attained in linking school and work as much as possible, thought specific classes, and internships that are intertwined with school.
They are quite selective (you need to apply and get accepted beforehand, non that differently from an American university), but as they’re only two years programs, they’re very often underrated.

There are also a bunch of other schools that are usually some sort of graduate schools where one goes to specialize in a certain field after a Bachelor’s or a Master’s.

Let’s talk about demographics now.

From Wikipedia:
-Number of students in 2006: 2,254,386

-In Universities: 1,285,408 (57%)
-In BTS/DUT: 342,098 (15%)
-In Grandes Ecoles: 76,160 (3%)
-Others: 550,720 (24%)
In “Others” I assume one finds schools such as “Political Science schools”, IUFM (where one learns to become a teacher after graduating from the university) and other similar schools that can be considered as some sort of graduate schools out of universities.

I’m sure that I have forgotten a few more obscure or rare types of schools and degrees, but I at least started to answer your question.

pixel Can you explain how the French higher education system works?

7 Responses to “Can you explain how the French higher education system works?”

  1. ah, i think i understand now! in the u.s. we differentiate between between being "educated" and being "trained". the most elite institutions here advocate the idea that college is the place one learns to think, to analyse…and presupposes that this will arm the student with the necessary intellectual skills to navigate a varied and changing world. So, one has a wide experience in college, and then graduate school is meant to provide either professional training (medicine, law, business), or academic preparation (master's and doctoral degrees).

  2. You're leaving out a good chunk of people here though - the ones who either don't have the BAC or who drop out of university and thus have no diploma (the drop-out rate is around 50% for 1st year students).

    The most frustrating thing for me about the French school system is that kids have to decide quite young (14/15) what they want to do for the rest of their life. Who knows what they want to do at that age? Plus, a lot of teens are tired of school, so they tend to go more of a manual-labor route just to get out as quick as possible. But after which, it's really difficult for them to backtrack and go another route.

    I guess they're the ones I feel bad for - it'd be almost impossible for some one who is a brick layer for example to go back to school and become a teacher. There are many good things about the French education system, but I do think that this is one of its failings.

  3. I agree it's slightly off-topic, but I found your answer very skewed towards the Grandes Ecoles - which as you say yourself only represents 3% of students.

    I disagree however when you say that it's easy to change tracks. I've taught at the primary, collège & lycée level here in France so I believe I have a decent amount of experience with and knowledge of the French school system. And I've seen kids get sort of pigeon-holed into a certain track because of their grades, their family background, or their lack of interest in school at the crucial choosing time, and then they're stuck.

    And even after the Bac people get pigeon-holed. If you have a Bac S, it'd be really difficult to be accepted into a literary program and vice versa. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's not an easy thing to do.

    I deal with people every day in my job who want to go back to school or who want to change tracks, and they're just not able to - no one will give them a chance because they don't have the right background/diploma. Many of them have even applied to various formations to *try* to change, but were turned away because it was too different from what they were currently doing.

    I guess what was most frustrating for me as a teacher is that students really got pigeon-holed based on their family backgrounds. If their parents worked in a factory or as manual laborers, it was pretty much a given that they would do the same. If their parents were say, fonctionnaires, they were likely to follow the same track (or a job at the same level). And if their parents went to a grande école, they were very likely to go to a grande école as well. Things are still very much broken up into a class system when it comes to education. There just isn't that same movement to push your kids to do better than you did- it's more about them just staying at the same socio-economic level as their parents, and you can see it at all levels - from the way teachers react to certain children to the what their parents' expectations of them are. There's no telling kids "You can be anything you want to be - even President" like we see in the US.

    Again though, this is not a criticism of the French school system - in many ways I think it is great and I also that what Jules Ferry did was absolutely genius - but it is one of the downsides to French education.

  4. I just would like to add that more and more french universities tend to unite in order to offer a wide range of diplomas (for instance there were 3 universities in Strasbourg and now there is only one) and to be recognized by foreign students.

    (ps: sorry for the mistakes ^^)

  5. Thanks, David, for such a detailed response - that was my question, but I'd completely forgotten I'd ever asked it! Let me add that, while I have no idea about other non-French people, I have no obsession at all with the grandes ecoles - and was certainly never thinking of them as an Oxbridge or Ivy League equivalent. I don't think I'd ever even heard of them until I become friends with a well-heeled Parisian who was making his second ENA attempt while doing a UK degree at the same time, and seemed to think his life was over when he didn't get in. I found it difficult to see why he was so utterly crushed and my interest stems from there.

    To be honest, I'm not convinced most foreigners know about them. I was originally more interested in the actual university system in France,as I'm an academic myself, but I kept being told (by people I met through the ENA-attempting friend) that only the weak students went to university, which seemed ridiculous to me! My suspicions were that with this particular band of people I'd hit a layer of GE-related snobbery - but I'm less attuned to various kinds of class/snob stuff in a language in which I'm not fluent, and it's very interesting to have your less biased take on it all - thank you.

    On the matter of the age at which you take a particular educational track that determines your future. I see that the French system requires you to make that choice early (well, around the same age as the UK) but I'm not convinced
    the US system where you can only attend medical school or law school as a postgraduate is any better. It seems to me ridiculously infantilising, and postpones adulthood.

  6. i checked this topic of your blog (which is really good BTW), but i had to add something.
    you said “-Most Grandes Ecoles are not free (at least the Classes Préparatoires are not)” that is not right. most of Classes preparatoires are free and the school also, only the privats ones are not. if you do your highschool well and get the grades for you go in a classe preparatoire”free” for exemple, in Paris janson de sailly, louis le grand, pasteur etc are free and they are the best ones, same with the schools, polytechnique is free as are centrale schools and mines and many others.
    Beside that, i love your blog and learn many things about how people around the world see french or are questioning about them. keep going

    • Thanks for the feedback Pierre. Yeah, I’m not sure why I wrote that about Grandes Écoles. Because of some of the business schools, maybe? Are those free too?
      As for the classes préparatoires, I was under the impression that most of them were private (even if the most prestigious ones are not), but I could be wrong. In that case, I stand corrected.

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