School me on French universities!
November 2, 2012 8:19 PM   Subscribe

Explain to me the structure and reputation of the Paris universities. And, while we're at it, how about explaining the French tertiary educational system as well?

Embarrassing as it is to admit it, today the full weight of the realization hit me that I frankly have no idea whatsoever how the French tertiary educational system works. I hear all about Paris X, or Paris IV (the Sorbonne?), or whatever, but I have no idea how all of it fits together, or which universities are known for what. I have some vague suspicion that there are some sort of competitive institutes that are separate, like Sciences Po, but I could be totally misguided here. I'd love the more Continentally-suave MeFites to tell me about how the French university system functions, especially:

1. Do you go to French university straight from what Americans could consider high school? Is entrance decided on a test? Essay or multiple-choice? Is it all academic, or are there extra-curricular factors in the admissions calculus? Do most people go to university, or would most people leave after secondary school to get a job or go into the trades? Are all universities state rather than private? What range is the tuition cost?

2. Do you just study one subject at undergrad, like the English or the Germans, or is a broader distribution of subjects? How is the grading done? Is it exam-based, or do homework and participation count? Are there grad TAs? How hands-on are the professors? How does the undergrad/grad experience differ from other Western countries?

3. Which universities are the most prestigious? Or does it not really work like that, and people mostly go to their local one? Do students generally live at home during undergrad? Are the universities' grad reputations different from undergrad?

4. What's the deal with things like Science Po? Are these primarily undergraduate, or graduate? How do they compare in structure, funding, and reputation with the others?

5. And describe to me the Paris universities in particular. Why are there so many? Are they for different academic specialties? Is it from the original university splitting, or is it from new branches founding? What is each known for? Which (if any) is a descendent of the famous medieval University of Paris? Is the structure comparable to a US state university system (say, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, ec.), or would this be a misunderstanding? Are there universities in Paris that aren't part of the University of Paris system? Are the Paris universities similar to those in other French cities? Are the universities in other French cities split in a similar way, or is there mainly only one?

5. What else is missing from my questions above? Correct my ignorance, MeFites, please!
posted by UniversityNomad to Education (5 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to start here
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:41 AM on November 3, 2012

I can answer some of these, tho as Mister Bijou hinted, a lot of this is available online.

1. You generally go to uni after you have your bac(calauréat). There are no entrance exams for the public unis, tho there are for the Grandes Ecoles, the elite schools that anyone who is anything will have gone to. According to that Grandes Ecoles article, public unis have to accept anyone from their "catchment area". There are no tuition fees at public universities in France (oh France, I love you). According to this pdf, about 42% of 25-34 year olds in 2008 had a university diploma.

2. Yes, you do one subject (you did when I was there in 1999), the whole "let's study all sorts of stuff" thing is American (as btw is the obsession with extracurricular activities, tho that belongs in Q1). The grading is a mix (based on my experience doing French lit) - we had end of term exams, essays written throughout the term, and sometimes oral presentations. I'm sure in sciency subjects it will be slightly different but also a mix. Your classes will be either lectures or travaux dirigés, i.e. smaller classes with interaction (we'd call this seminars in the UK, not sure about US).

3. Undoubtedly the Grandes Ecoles are the elite schools, they tower way above anything else, but obviously their focus is fairly narrow - you don't go there to study English literature or even medicine, you go there to become prime minister or CEO of Peugeot. Tbh I don't have much experience with how French students choose their uni, apparently they'd go to their local one based on what the Grandes Ecoles article said. There aren't huge differences in prestige in the public unis (no Oxford or Cambridge), tho some will be considered tougher (for us liberal arts farts, this was always Paris IV, which has to uphold its status as original Sorbonne / oldest uni).

4. Already answered in relation to Grandes Ecoles. Read the Wikipedia article :)

5. Really, almost all of these questions are answered in the Wikipedia article. The French one, unsurprisingly, is a lot more detailed, if you want to try and read it with Google Translate....
posted by ClarissaWAM at 4:47 AM on November 3, 2012

There is actually a "tuition" fee for public universities, although it's so small it hardly counts. They're called frais d'inscription, registration fees, and are, respectively, for the 2012-2013 school year: 181 euros/year up to a Bachelors degree, 250 euros/year for a Masters degree, and 380 euros/year for a Doctoral degree.

There are also a lot of technical schools in France that are kind of like American community colleges in that they offer 2-year degrees and certifications for careers such as electricians, mechanics, plumbers, and hairdressers.

As for 2., seconding Clarissa, you do pretty much focus on a single subject. I came into France originally as a 4th-year exchange student, to finish my BA in French (language and literature). My US university had a pretty nice setup to where we American students could pick and choose from amongst different filières, lines of study, so I was able to see how French students in literature really all studied just literature, and language students only studied the one language they had chosen. Last year I went back to school in France to get my Masters in comparative literature, which was a bit more open as well since, being comparative and all, we were essentially allowed to create our own curriculum according to our thesis, with approval from our thesis advisor. I was able to take anthropology and literature courses, where anthro students only took anthro, and literature students only took literature (sometimes language courses if they were studying a foreign language's literature, naturally).

Grades were given on oral presentations (very important in language and literature studies), term papers (15-30 pages), and participation in class. For the Masters degree, naturally the thesis + defense was the biggest grade component. While participation is never openly stated as being part of a grade in France, it absolutely is. There are students who brag about passing classes they never attended by simply turning in the rare required papers – it's true we never got homework in any of the classes I took, and you could easily just show up the first day, hear what type of alternate was offered for the oral presentation (one is usually offered), and turn it and the term paper in when due – but the key word from these students is "passed". These aren't people who will get honors. (I did get honors, for both degrees, and my regular presence and active participation were remarked on by my professors in France.)

I'm kind of an oddity in that with my literature and language degrees, my day job is in IT consulting in France. So I meet a lot of people from engineering schools. Those are a bit of a different beast in that there's a very clear hierarchy, with public universities usually at the bottom, though there are exceptions in Lyon and Nice-Sophia Antipolis (France's Silicon Valley). When new hires arrive, practically the first question after "where are you from" is "what school did you go to" and They. Never. Forget. Ever. It's a bit like business schools in the US, where no matter what the quality of your actual work and relationships are with colleagues, if you're from High-Falutin' École, you'll always be paid and promoted better than someone from Université de Wherever. In IT this can be especially unnerving because many consulting companies actually have quotas for haute école degree-holders, meaning they'll hire people just to fill the quota (they do indeed actually do this), leaving good workers with less-recognized degrees out cold. I think IT is particular in this case, however. I was a freelance translator for several years and it didn't matter very much where your degree was from, so long as you could translate well.

The one sort of exception is honors. French professors do not give high grades easily, so no matter what university or école you went to, if you have a mention bien or mention très bien (magna and summa cum laude, respectively; the "cum laude" would simply be avec mention, it's not as remarked-on), you also get a bit of a leg up in terms of prospects.

For 3. yes, most students go to their local public university, since all are pretty good. As Clarissa also says, some do have better reputations, for instance the Sorbonne and Lyon II are well-regarded for literature, and for IT degrees, it's hard to go wrong with the Université de Sophia Antipolis. Students usually live at home since it costs less. There isn't really any financial aid as we know it in the US. There are scholarships, but they're usually to go to specific engineering, business, or international affairs programs, or to do a PhD. Some students do take the opportunity to move to a different city though, and will take a job on the side to fund it. Usually parents will pay for most of the cost, however.

As the others have already mentioned, Wikipedia is a good source of information for the operational side.
posted by fraula at 6:42 AM on November 3, 2012

You ain't seen nothing like the interaction of politics and big business until you've looked at the current roles of a graduating class from the Ecole Nationale d'Administration.

And that's like a grand-ecole for grand-ecole grads.
posted by JPD at 8:40 AM on November 3, 2012

Most of my limited secondhand knowledge about this topic has been covered already, I'll just add that if you intend to go to a grande école, you don't take the entrance exam immediately after your bac, instead you take extremely intense preparatory classes for a couple years first.

You might enjoy reading Tony Judt's brief memoir of the École Normale Supérieure in his book The Memory Chalet (it's also online if you have a subscription/institutional access to the NYRB, where it was first published).
posted by John Raskolnikov Gilson at 9:19 AM on November 3, 2012

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