The main specificity of the French system of higher education is the difference of organisation between Universities and Great Schools


Most of the Universities in France are publicly financed universities and are well distributed around the country. They award national degrees which provide assurance of a uniformly high level of educational quality, regardless of where they were earned — from the famous Sorbonne to the alpine campuses of the universities of Grenoble and Chambéry and the island campus of the University of Corsica.

The universities offer programmes in all disciplines - sciences, technology, humanities, arts, social sciences, law, economics, business, health and medicine, physical education, and at every level. Their graduates receive nationally regulated degrees: the Bachelor or Licence (three years), Master’s (five years), and Doctorate (eight years).

Moreover, universities have been able to accommodate new educational needs while remaining parallel with the traditional academic ladder:

  • More than 2,000 career-oriented licence degrees, known as licence professionnelles, are available.
  • Technical programmes are offered in 24 specialty areas in university-based institutes of technology (IUTs or instituts universitaires de technologie).
  • Management programmes are available in university-based institutes of business administration (IAE or instituts d’administration des entreprises).
  • Political science and economics programmes are conducted in university-based institutes of politics (IEP, instituts d’études politiques) and Sciences Po Paris (or Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris).
  • Journalism and communication are taught in specialised institutes in several universities. Examples include CELSA at the Paris-Sorbonne University and the Centre Universitaire d’Enseignement du Journalisme at the University of Strasbourg.

Energised by 97,000 research faculties, 285 doctoral departments throughout the nation’s universities passionately manage research programmes in close cooperation with more than 1,200 university-based laboratories. France’s doctoral departments have always been open to international exchanges: of the 65,000 doctoral candidates in French institutions in 2010, more than 26,000 came from outside France.

Deeply committed to their corporate, academic, and research partners in France and abroad, the nation’s universities daily demonstrate their dynamism and their ability to respond to change.

The Great Schools or Grandes Ecoles

Unique to France, the first Grandes Écoles (literally ‘great schools’) were established in the early 19th century to operate in tandem with the universities. Their distinction then, as it is now, lay in offering professional education at a very high level. The Grandes Écoles remain very selective.

All Grandes Écoles offer five-year degrees recognised by the government, which are equivalent to the European Master’s. They may also offer intermediate specialised degrees, among them the Bachelor’s (in three or four years), the Master of Science (MSc) (in four or five years), the Master of Business Administration (MBA), and the specialised Master (MS) (six years).

The traditional path into the Grandes Écoles is by competitive examination following two years of preparatory classes. Students then earn their degree in three more years of increasingly specialised study. However many schools offer admission to a five-year curriculum directly from secondary school.

To accommodate international students, many Grandes Écoles offer admission on the strength of the applicant’s academic record. The Master degree may be earned in two to five years, depending on the amount of credit the applicant receives for his or her prior academic work.

Moreover, not less than 3,000 public and private educational institutions, known as écoles specialisées (specialised schools), extend the French system of higher education into specific areas such as health, paramedical training, architecture, arts, audiovisual arts, communication, journalism, social work, fashion, design, tourism, culinary arts and hotel management. These institutions offer government-accredited degrees as well as other credentials specific to the institution that confers them. Programmes demand two to five years of study. Admission is by examination or on the basis of the applicant’s academic record.

Engineering and management schools dominate the majority of the Grandes Écoles, but one can also find programmes in public administration, military sciences, veterinary sciences and agronomy.

School of Engineering
More than 200 schools of engineering, both public and private, offer the whole range of engineering sciences. They are emblematic of the solid quality of the Diplôme d’Ingénieur, a venerable French degree that is fully equivalent to the European Master’s. The diplôme d’ingénieur is a national graduate qualification that entitles its holder to apply to a doctoral programme. Public schools of engineering charge tuition fees of approximately €550 per year.

Business and management
France’s Grandes Écoles of business and management, about 220 in number, are recognised by the national government and may boast other distinctions as well, such as membership in the management section of the Conférence des Grandes Écoles. They offer programmes geared to current economic requirements and new management practices. Internships and international exchanges play a large role in many programmes, and many schools are affiliated with local chambers of commerce and industry. The annual tuition fees vary widely but generally range between €2,000 and €30,000.

Higher education and research clusters

In 2007 France’s higher education and research clusters, known as PRES (pôles de recherche et d’enseignement supérieur), were created to bring together universities, Grandes Écoles, and research organisations located near one another, enabling them to coordinate their activities, and pool resources and skills in the areas of research, training, and international cooperation.

Shared mechanisms include:

  • Thematic centres of excellence in research and innovation with close ties to local companie
  • A single point of contact for foreign researchers and doctoral candidates
  • Formation of and support for doctoral departments that confer doctoral degrees in the name of the PRES and provision of career-related services for junior researchers
  • Support of local, regional and international projects
  • Forging links with international academic communities
  • A one-stop shop for international student services
  • Streamlined publication of academic and scientific work
  • Gathering and pooling the collective goodwill of the respective member institutions.

Seventeen PRES have been formed since 2007. For example, the present University of Bordeaux was established in 2007, and is made up of the original University of Bordeaux, Victor Segalen University, Michel de Montaigne University and Montesquieu University, along with various local technical schools.

By entering into a consortium with other schools and universities, in addition to pooling the resources and skills into a collective centre of research and education, the resulting PRES may increase its visibility and enhance its attractiveness at a national and international level. A PRES brings together disparate parts of the academic circles, and enhances important ties with local businesses and communities.