Modernisation and the reform of higher education in France
Historically, French universities were much larger and more independent institutions, controlling their own resources and working to expand their own reputations through teaching and research activities.
This model was similar to that of other top higher education countries (such as the UK) but a series of ambitious (and occasionally controversial) reforms have dramatically reshaped it, leading to the development of one of the world's most unique (but equally successful) approaches to university education.
Instead of developing a smaller number of elite (but isolated) providers, the French government has invested in developing partnerships between local institutions – creating critical masses of excellence with shared expertise and resources.
As part of this, many of France's historic large universities have separated into a number of smaller institutions. You'll see the legacy of this in French university names. Paris Descartes University, for example, is also known as 'Paris 5' (or 'Paris V') – alluding to its heritage as one successor of the 12th century University of Paris.
The result of all this reform has much to offer students, with institutions small enough to be incredibly specialised, but benefitting from their place within larger networks – and the expertise brought by universities and research centres with different areas of focus.
Of course, France is still home to incredibly prestigious individual institutions, including its famous Grandes Écoles – characterised by a highly selective admissions process.
Though they take various individual forms, public higher education providers in France are collectively referred to as Établissement public à caractère scientifique, culturel et professionnel (EPSCP) (Public Establishments of a Scientific, Cultural or Professional Character).
There are over 140 individual EPSCP. The majority are universities, but others are usually deemed to be 'university-grade' institutions, with the power to conduct public research and training and to award academic degrees.
The two main varieties of public university within the EPSCP grouping are:
- Universities – France's 83 public universities are comprehensive academic research and training institutions, offering degree programmes in a wide range of subject areas. All can award Masters degrees (as well as other more advanced postgraduate qualifications, such as PhDs).
- Major Public Establishments – The EPSCP category also includes a number of 'Grands établissements publics'. These are France's top public universities, governed under ministerial charter by branches of the French government. They are often specialised within specific academic disciplines and admit students based on performance in entrance exams such as the CPGE used by France's Grandes Écoles.
In addition to its universities, France is also home to groups of elite higher education institutions. The most famous are the country's Grandes Écoles.
These are not part of the main EPSCP category, but nor are they an official grouping of their own.
There is no 'hard and fast' list of Grandes Écoles, but the category is conventionally held to include more specific groups such as the Écoles Normales Supérieures (elite publically-funded universities) as well as high profile business and engineering schools (Grandes Écoles de Commerce and Grandes Écoles d'Ingénieurs).
What unites all of these institutions is their highly specialised nature and incredibly selective admissions process (some Grandes Écoles only admit a few hundred students each year). Most will require applicants to complete preparatory classes and entrance exams known as Classe Préparatoire aux Grandes Écoles (CPGE).
This process normally requires two years of university-level study specifically for the examination programme, or a suitable amount of time on an undergraduate ('License') programme at a French university.
The degrees awarded by Grandes Écoles are generally advanced, taking the form of Masters or equivalent 'graduate level' qualifications.
It is also possible to apply for specific postgraduate study at a Grandes École, provided your existing qualifications are deemed sufficient and you can pass any required entrance examinations.
Communautés d’Universités et d'Etablissements
The modernisation of French higher education and the emphasis on collaboration between institutions has lead to the formation of local networks known as Communautés d’Universités et d'Etablissements (Communities of Universities and Schools).
There are around 27 COMUE currently operating in France. They include public universities, Grandes Écoles and other specialist research and training centres, all of which bring their own particular facilities and expertise to the local network.
As a Masters student you will normally enrol in a specific university (rather than the COMUE it might form part of) but membership of one of these groups can have many benefits for your degree programme, allowing you to profit from the input and opportunities available at partner institutions without sacrificing the specialism and focus of your 'host' university.