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Make sense of... French higher education

This month as students take up their university courses some will have experienced something new – a selective entrance system…

Unlike the UK, French universities have not had a selective entrance system before this year. In the past if you had a Baccalauréat pass (at least 10 out of 20) you could sign up for any course and then places on oversubscribed ones were allocated by lottery.

As of this year, the system has changed, with President Macron declaring that France has “turned the page from an absurd system”. Teaching teams now analyse applications and an applicant may be told ‘yes’, ‘no’, asked to wait to see if further places are freed up or told ‘yes if…’ (oui, si). The latter means a place conditional on, for example, agreeing to extra foundational study, which may or may not increase the length of study (such as an undergraduate degree in four years not three).

School results in relevant subjects are considered, choice of Bac, teacher evaluations and a student’s given reasons for wanting to do the course. Selectors may consider skills and aptitudes, for example, for law, whether you are good at expressing yourself in writing and speech.

Applicants from the académie (local education authority) area are prioritised although there must be a quota set aside for other candidates. There are also quotas for students with means-tested grants (bourses) if courses are oversubscribed.

International students may apply if they have equivalent qualifications such as A-levels but may have to provide evidence of good French, if necessary by taking a test such as DELF, DALF, TCF or TEF (however there are more than 1,200 courses taught in English; see

French universities are generally named after the town and a famous person and they are numbered when there are more than one in a city (often with differing focuses). In Paris, for example, they include Panthéon-Sorbonne (Paris 1), Paris Diderot (Paris 7) or Paris Descartes (Paris 5). They are often small but there has been a recent trend for several to group together.

Probably when most English-speakers think of a famous French university, the ‘Sor­bonne’ comes to mind.  Strictly-speaking this is a building on Paris’s Left Bank, which was home to the Université de Paris from the 12th century to the 1970s, before it was broken up. The name came from its theological school founded by Robert de Sorbon, chaplain to King (‘Saint’) Louis IX and the area is called the Latin Quarter due to the language spoken by students there in the Middle Ages. Today there are three institutions with ‘Sorbonne’ in the name, which still use parts of the building.

Types of degree were standardised along European lines in recent years, with a first degree (une licence) usually lasting three years divided into two semestres each from September to December and January to May. Un master takes two years (completing the first year is called master 1) and un doctorat three or more. Job adverts may refer to years of study after the Bac, such as Bac+3 (licence) or Bac+5 (master). University study includes cours magistraux (lectures), travaux dirigés (TD – tutorials) and travaux pratiques (TP – such as laboratory work).

French higher education also includes certain vocational or technical courses such as the Brevet de Technicien Supérieur (BTS) and Diplôme Univer­sitaire de Technologie (DUT) which are taken in two years.

There are also several hundred free online courses from French institutions, open to all, via France Université Numé­rique (‘FUN’). See

Some students who obtain a university place opt for an année de césure – a year out to volunteer for charity, do a work placement or personal project, perhaps spending time abroad.

Unlike in the UK, fees are not generally a big worry – frais d’inscription for a standard degree this year are €170/ year (compared to €9,250 in the UK). As for other costs, there is less of a tradition, compared to the UK, of students studying far from home and many live with their families and may do part-time work (un job étudiant). Student loans (prêt étudiant) are available from banks. For those who do not have someone to stand as garant (garantor) the state can stand in.

As of this year applications are via a new website for students from France and the EU/EEA. Other foreign students apply via for admission to a university and for a student visa.

On the main site people make up to 10 voeux (wishes) during the period January to March.

Rather than university, high-fliers in certain fields will aim at one of the grandes écoles which turn out top civil servants, engineers etc. You have to pass a tough exam to get in.

The concept dates to the Re­volution with the idea that all citizens should have access to top posts on condition of ability. Famous ones include Ecole Polytechnique (engineering), Ecole Normale Supérieur (ENS or Normale Sup’) for government and academia, Ecole Nationale d’Administration (civil service) and Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC) for business. Graduates have names such as normalien, polytechnicien and énarque.

Students do two intensive years after the Bac to prepare, called classes préparatoires (prépa or CPGE). These are in certain lycées which select based on academic criteria, with famous ones in Paris, such as Henri IV, being especially sought-after. They have a vocabulary of their own, such as names for students in science, literary or economic fields: taupin (from taupe, mole), khâgneux and épicier or a kind of oral test held frequently, called une colle (or ‘khôlle’).

The prépas are free or paid-for depending on whether the lycée is a state or private one (in the latter case they range from around €2,000/year in one ‘under contract’ with the state to up to €10,000 or more for others. They often have boarding houses, at a cost of around €2,000/year including meals.

The image here was drawn by artist Perry Taylor. For more of his work see

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