A Brief Overview of Higher Education in France

From the uniformity of laïcité (secularism) to the leftist ideals of the incumbent Socialist party under François Hollande, France has a pronounced legacy of embodying a tame adaptation of Democratic Socialism among industrialized nations. One need look no further than the French higher education system to witness an institutionalization of égalité.

Upon completion of secondary school coursework, students seeking to continue their studies must take a series of exams based on the track of study they pursued in lycée. The three main strata for the baccalauréat (truncated as le bac) are the Bac Général, which has “streams” in science, literature, and social and economic sciences, the Bac Technologique which specializes in sciences, technology, music, dance, and hotel management, and the Brevet de Technicien, which allows access to non-university technical programs in areas like manufacturing and industrial studies. Passing one of these three exam series guarantees admission to French higher education. Those who choose not to pursue a baccalauréat may finish their studies one year early and receive either a Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnelle (le CAP) or the slightly more prestigious Brevet d’Etudes Professionnelles (le BEP). These certifications segue into a multitude of technical and career-oriented programs ranging from one to two years. France contains more than 3,000 schools that offer programs of this kind, both public and private.

Those who opt into the Brevet de Technicien earn access to an array of higher-level technical degrees. These typically two-year programs are offered at Universities, lycées, and Instituts Universitaires de Technologie (IUT), the latter of which are connected to universities and prepare students for the workforce. It is worth noting that obtaining a degree of this level does not grant eligibility for “second cycle” degree programs, such as a Master diploma.

France’s formalized university structure abides by a consolidated European Union approach called the LMD System (Licence-Master-Doctorat). The degrees are merited via ECTS credits (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System), which are accepted by most European educational institutions. The “Licence” degree is earned in three years, the “Master” in two additional years, and the “Doctorat” in an additional three. These degrees can chiefly be obtained at public universities and Grandes Ecoles.

There are 83 public sector universities in France, and anyone is guaranteed admission to one of these schools upon passing le bac. Moreover, France is one of six countries in which public higher education is virtually free—“Licence” programs cost a mere €184 (roughly $200) per academic year, with a “Master” only demanding €256 (roughly $275). The caveat is the sheer turnover of these programs. Nearly half of all students fail to complete their first year of studies at these institutions, with about 90,000 leaving without a qualification. Efforts are being made to curb the failure rate among students, but the volume of students makes the endeavor a difficult one.

There are also private institutions that offer LMD system degrees, with tuition ranging from €3,000 to €10,000 annually (approximately $3,200 to $10,700). The most prestigious of these institutions are called Grandes Ecoles, which elicit a five-year program ultimately resulting in a Master’s-level qualification. These French equivalents to the Ivy League only mandate three years of study within the institutions themselves, in addition to two preceding years of classes préparatoires (truncated as prépas). Following these two years of study, students then take a concours for admission to a Grande Ecole. Not all Grandes Ecoles are private; a notable example is La Sorbonne, a renowned university in Paris. The most prominent programs offered within these schools are Management and Engineering.

The French higher education system displays close parallels with the United States system and has also exhibited efforts to consolidate curricula among European nations. While there are certainly hitches in fielding the influx of people seeking educational advancement, the open opportunity to obtain a degree speaks well to the fraternal ideals of the country.