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Studying at a University in France

France is known for its academic prowess, with great intellectuals such as Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Victor, Hugo and Louis Pasteur all hailing from France. Its reputation precedes it and nowadays, the French education system is known as one of the best worldwide. With 41 institutions in the QS Top 250 universities, it offers high-quality teaching at a low price, for French and foreign students alike.

University Overview

There are several different types of higher education institutions in France, which can be either public or private institutions:

  • Universities
  • Grandes Ecoles – elite universities, which have rigorous entrance exams to secure a place
  • Institutes within the universities
  • Engineering Schools

Like in Anglophone universities, you study for a Licence (Bachelor’s), awarded after three years of undergraduate study, a Master (Master’s) two years of study, after completion of the licence, or a Doctorat (PhD), usually three years of postgraduate research, after completion of the Master.

French degrees are graded on a scale of 1-20. Grades over 16 are rarely awarded and the following grade categories are:

International Category French Grading
A 20-16 (Mention très bien)
B 14-16 (Mention bien)
C 12-14 (Mention assez bien)
D 10-12 (Passable)

The academic year begins in September and ends in June. It is usually split into two semesters, with semester one being September-January and semester two being February-June.

Campus Culture

Contrary to British and North American universities, most French students study in their home town and live at home. There are student halls of residences (foyers) available, which offer low-cost accommodation, however, competition for rooms is high and there are usually curfews in place. The tendency is to live in a shared apartment with other students.

Outside of studies, there is not as much campus activity, ie., societies and sport teams, in comparison to British and North American universities. Students generally stay on campus until their final class and return home to continue studying.

Applying to a French University

If you wish to apply to a French undergraduate programme, the application period is around mid-April to mid-October. Universities shut for summer, around July-September, so get your application in as soon as possible to start the visa application process.

To apply, you’ll need to translate your high school transcript with your grades and fill out an application form on the university’s website. If the teaching is in French, you’ll need to take a French language exam to show you have sufficient language skills.

If you’re applying for a Master’s, the application is more complicated. You will need to submit a project proposal, find a professor who specialises in your subject and will support your thesis. For more information for writing a successful project proposal, check out this article.

Getting a Student Visa

If you’re an EU/EEA or Swiss citizen, you can visit, live, work and study in France without a visa. The one exception is Croatian citizens, who require a work permit before working in France.

Otherwise, depending on the duration of your study, you may or may not need to apply for a student visa.

If you are studying for less than 90 days and you don’t need a Schengen visa before coming to France, you can study on a short-stay visa, without any prior paperwork. A list of the countries, which don’t require a short stay visa before arriving can be found here.

If you need a Schengen visa and you’re studying for less than 90 days, you will only need to apply for a Schengen short stay visa. To get a Schengen short stay visa, you will need to apply at the French Consulate of your country. A full list of the required documents for the application can be found here.

If you wish to study for longer than 90 days and you’re not an EU/EEA or Swiss citizen, you will need a long-stay student visa.

Generally, most student visas are valid for one year, unless the study period is less than a year. The visa application process can take up two months, so starting the application as soon as possible is advised.

Applicants need to apply for an interview at their nearest French consulate. However, they can apply for an interview before having all the necessary documents. All they need to book an interview appointment is their passport number.

If the applicant is a citizen of one of the 32 countries part of the CEF procedure, such as the US, Canada or Australia, they will have to register an account on Campus France. A full list of the countries can be found on this website.

The applicant’s passport needs to be valid 3 months after the expiration date of the student visa. When called to the French Consulate for interview, the applicant needs to bring copies and/or originals of the following documents:

  • One copy of the official acceptance letter from the university
  • A copy of the Campus France confirmation e-mail
  • A copy of the Campus France receipt of payment
  • Two passport photos
  • Visa processing fee (€50)
  • Passport with at least two free pages
  • Proof of student being financially sufficient for the study period
  • Copy of airline reservation or intended flight dates
  • Proof of address in the applicant’s country of residence
  • Completed copy of the French Immigration Form (OFII)

If the student wishes to extend the student visa, they can renew it whilst in France. The applicant has to go to the nearest préfecture, with a completed dossier of all the required documents, at least two months before the expiry of the current visa

Tuition Fees

Deciding to study in a public or private institution will impact the cost of tuition fees. If you wish to study in a public university, the tuition fees for 2014-2015 academic year are as follows:

  • €189.10 for Bachelor’s students
  • €261.10 for Master’s students
  • €396.10 euros for Doctorate students
  • €615.10 euros for students enrolled in engineering schools.

Additional costs may be added onto the basic tuition fees, depending on course requirements. The tendency is to levy hefty administrative fees on top of the tuition fees. In total, tuition fees for public institutions average €1,000 per year.

The cost for private universities are higher, especially business schools, with tuition fees generally costing around €3,000-€10,000 per year.

Top Universities

As previously stated, France is home to many reputable and prestigious universities. Here is a list of some of the best in the country:

Ecole Normale Superiére (ENS), Paris

Not only does the prestigious grande école rank number one in France, it also ranks first in continental Europe, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement. The institution accepts only the best, with only 2,500 students in attendance. The ENS accepts students for postgraduate study, after rigorous entrance exams.

Ecole Polytechnique, Paris (Palaiseau)

In the southern suburbs of Paris lies Ecole Polytechnique, a specialist science and technology grande école. Amongst its many projects, the grande école has brought the fore the TGV (France’s high speed train line), the Concorde and the mobile phone system GSM. It’s once again a small university, with only 2,500 students, meaning competition for places is fierce.

Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC), Paris

Another top sciences university, the UPMC teaches over 30,000 students along with 4,000 research staff. As well as being based in Paris’ Latin Quarter, the university has 3 ocean logical observatories at Roscoff, Banyuls and Villefranche-sur-Mer, and 2 medical teaching and research units in two Parisian hospitals: Saint-Antoine and Pitié-Salpêtrière.

CERAM Business School, Sophia Antipolis, Nice

CERAM offers high quality, English-taught Bachelor’s courses in business. The school offers a unique four year programme, where students will study on campus for two years and have two years of international study in a partner university. The school, as with most French business schools, is private, so tuition fees are approximately €6,100 per year.

Université de Strasbourg, Strasbourg

The merging of three universities in 2009, Louis Pasteur, Marc Bloch and Robert Schuman, has formed a prestigious university offering all subjects of study. Being one of the largest universities in France, it has 37 faculties, schools and institutes, as well as 86 laboratories and research centres. There are proposals to form an Upper Rhine Academic Community, comprising of Strasbourg, Basel, Freiburg and Mulhouse universities to further its academic offerings.