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Understanding French People #2: University (Part 1)

La Sorbonne in Paris - Via: cityzeum.com

La Sorbonne in Paris - Via: cityzeum.com

Jeez, time flies!

Here's to me, opening my article with a platitude. Via: giphy.com

Here's to me, opening my article with a platitude. Via: giphy.com

I wrote the first article of the Understanding French People series like a year ago and had this second installment in mind for almost as much time. I really have to stop coming up with new series and not following through with them!

Anyway, last time, I was telling you about France's case of "overwhelming capital," with Paris being by far the biggest, richest and most influential city in the country as opposed to the situation in America, where several cities compete in power (and where the capital is not clearly surpassing its rivals).

Today, I would like to tell you about how higher education works in France. Indeed, there are quite a few differences between studying in America and in France. So here are some elements to allow you to better understand what it's like to be a French college student.

Université VS Grande école

One things that is quite difficult for Americans to understand is that, in France, we will differentiate what we call an "université" from what we call a "grande école". Now, a "grande école," translates quite easily (but nonetheless clumsily) to a "great school".

This rendering, as ungainly as it is, gives you an idea of how those "grande écoles" perceive themselves.
 

I didn't say anything. Via: giphy.com

I didn't say anything. Via: giphy.com

Indeed, in France you'll rarely hear a senior high school student saying "I hope my grades are good enough for me to get into such and such university." That's for the simple reason that there is no real selection process to get into a French "université". At least not at the undergraduate level. Selection truly starts mattering at the master level (this has been changing however, as universities have become more crowded, with the student body growing ever larger and the size of college facilities staying the same; I'll get back to this in part 2).

So, the "universités" are technically all equally accessible to high school graduates starting college, the only real constraint being a space one. And, yes, that includes the Sorbonne, which is a public university.

That is not the case for "grandes écoles," which one might say enact an elitist response to the democratic ideal of an equal-opportunity university system. Grandes écoles tend to offer highly sought after degrees, notably in fields like business or engineering. And, even if they are not necessarily private schools, their tuition fees are generally higher than the ones asked to attend regular universities (though they rarely come close to the cost of attending college in America).

They also tend to be more rigid than universities (although French universities are still more rigid than American ones, notably by leaving less choice to its students regarding the classes they are going to take).

I, for example, went to a grande école called the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Toulouse (or Sciences Po Toulouse). Now, this school is one of a bigger network of schools who, though independent from each other, offer very similar academic programs.

Here is a concise breakdown of their model: students who want to attend have to pass a three-part-test (general knowledge, history and a second language), then they enroll in a five-year-program at the end of which they will have a master's degree. Each semester ends with a series of exams that lasts approximately a week. If you don't pass your exams, you have to do-over the one or two semesters you failed the next year (although, before that, you are given a chance to compensate for your bad grades with a "make up" test). And, if you leave the school before completing the full five years, you don't collect any degree: it's a five-year-commitment or nothing.

Yup, that's how it is. Via: giphy.com

Yup, that's how it is. Via: giphy.com

Now, that is a difficult situation to imagine for American students but some "grandes écoles" are a bit extreme in their intransigent organizational scheme, even for France. In fact, for the whole duration of my studies, I felt like I was still in high school, with teachers taking roll calls and so on (any unjustified absence during class would take one point off your final grade). 

Yes, I'm here, so now can we talk about the tenants of constitutional law? Via: vaibhavkumarsinha554.wordpress.com

Yes, I'm here, so now can we talk about the tenants of constitutional law? Via: vaibhavkumarsinha554.wordpress.com

Universités, on the other hand, are known for giving their students greater freedom.

What degrees?

One thing you need to be aware of to understand the French "système universitaire" is called the Bologna Process. Now, what the hell does Bologna, which is in Italy, obviously, have to do with the French education system? Well, if you have been following the news, you might have heard of a jeopardized institution some of us are stubbornly clinging to for some reason: the European Union.

Via: giphy.com

Via: giphy.com

Indeed, near the end of the past century, some felt that it would be profitable to strive for a certain homogeneity among the college diplomas offered by the countries of the EU.

Below is a summary of the actions taken from 1998 to 2007 in the context of the Bologna Process.

Via: cevug.ugr.es

Via: cevug.ugr.es

The most famous implementation of the Bologna Process is probably a three cycle system that you will certainly recognize: bachelor/master's/doctorate. This allows European degrees to match each other as well as degrees offered in other parts of the world (like, for instance, in the US), the "BA, MA, PhD" triad being the most universally recognized value when it comes to university degrees.
 

Via: www.u-psud.fr

Via: www.u-psud.fr

However, you may notice a couple of differences. Most notably, you'll see that a European student needs only 3 years to complete a bachelor (or "licence", "L1", "L2" and "L3" referring to the three years necessary to complete this degree) and 5 to receive a master's. 

This homogenization was made possible by the advent of the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), so that students' progress can be followed using the same metric no matter what participating country their school is in. A student needs 180 ECTS to earn a bachelor (or licence) and 300 to secure a master's (or "mastère" as some stubborn people will sometimes try to spell it in France).

The cost of studying in France

The most tangible difference when it comes to studying in France versus studying in the US might be the cost. In fact it's kind of mind blowing to us how much Americans have to pay to go to university. Even most students who get financial help in the US pay way more than what a student would in France.

How French people imagine American universities. Via: giphy.com

How French people imagine American universities. Via: giphy.com

The tuition fees for every academic year are determined by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research and apply uniformly to all public universities.

So, whether you're studying physics in Nantes or psychology in Aix-en-Provence, you'll be paying exactly the same price, provided you're enrolled in a public university and are at the same level of studies (a year in a "licence" program is cheaper than a year in a master's program) and you did not buy any additional services or enroll for any supplementary program, which may vary depending on the establishment.

If you check out tuition fees at French public universities, you may also notice something called the "Sécurité Sociale étudiante". For instance, enrolling in a master's degree for the 2016-2017 academic year costs 598,10€  with the "Sécurité Sociale étudiante" and 383,10 € without the "Sécurité Sociale étudiante": there's a 215 euros difference.

Why's that? well, in France, "Sécurité Sociale" refers to health insurance. So, this 215 euros fee allows students to enjoy medical insurance (students have to get a "mutuelle étudiante", which adds up to the basic health insurance regimen everybody gets in France and covers medical costs pretty well, one of the major advantages of being a student in France).

However, if you're under 20 (and are not going to turn 20 during the upcoming academic year) or are a "boursier" (or a "boursière") you do not have to pay this fee and can still get health insurance. 

Now, what's a "boursier" or a "boursière"? Well, a "boursier" (male form) or "boursière" (female form) is someone who gets a "bourse", that is, financial support from the state. Your eligibility to get that support depends mainly on your parents' income. Another factor is how far away you live from the school you attend (because of travel costs), but, mostly, what matters is your parents' income as indicated on their tax returns.

Via: giphy.com

Via: giphy.com

I, personally, was a "boursière", which basically allowed me to get a master's degree for free (there were school-related fees of course, but all in all, my college experience was dirt cheap for US standards and still pretty darn cheap for French ones).

That is another major difference between France and the US when it comes to studying: in France, financial support for students is pretty uniquely taken in charge by the state and almost entirely based on the student's family's financial situation. It's not like in the US where there's an elaborate network of financial aid programs with very different requirements and modalities.

Also, nobody cares how well you play football. (There are some programs to accommodate professional athletes who would like to attend college though.)

In France, almost all of the financial aid to students is handled by one single entity. The institution in charge of allocating "bourses" to French university students who qualify is called CROUS, which is short for "Centre Régional des Œuvres Universitaires et Scolaires." And, believe me, you are not going to want to find yourself in any of their branches around back to school time. 

BUT I BROUGHT ALL THE REQUIRED PAPERWORK Via: giphy.com

BUT I BROUGHT ALL THE REQUIRED PAPERWORK Via: giphy.com

By the way, if you paid attention, you'll remember that I studied in a "grande école", not in a university. However, this "grande école" was public, so I was still able to get financial aid. Pretty cool right?

But what about studying in a private "grande école" then? Well, good question. I hadn't really thought about it before writing this article, so I looked it up for you. It turns out that the French state differentiates schools founded before and after 1952. If a private school existed before 1952, then it can take in "boursiers" students, but if it was founded after that date, then it must formulate a request to the Ministry of Higher Education and Research.

If you ask me, contacting the Ministry of Higher Education and Research just to make sure you can accept a student sounds like a pain in the butt, and it probably is. So my guess is that few lower income students go to private schools.

But, hey, I might be wrong. The best way to find out would probably involve taking a look at every single private school in France to find out if any of their students get financial help from the government.

Have fun with that. Via: giphy.com

Have fun with that. Via: giphy.com

Anyway, it's a complicated matter, and if you want to know more about it (lol), here's an article in French with more information.

Well, this might have been the most boring article I have ever written (if you disagree and can think of more boring ones, send me your thoughts), so I earnestly thank you for bearing with me until the end. And, if you actually enjoyed this, then stay tuned for part 2. I'm going to address even more boring things like universities' admission processes, but also some more fun ones like French college life. 

See you next time ;)!

 

Via: giphy.com

Via: giphy.com

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Angelilie 01/03/2017 15:31

beau blog. un plaisir de venir flâner sur vos pages. une découverte et un enchantement. au plaisir