The French educational system is highly centralized, organized, and ramified. It is divided into three different stages:
the primary education (enseignement primaire);
secondary education (enseignement secondaire);
Higher education (enseignement supérieur).
These degrees are recognized by the Bologna Process (EU recognition):
Licence and Licence Professionnelle (Bachelor)
In addition, the Licence and the Master are organised in semesters: 6 for the Licence and 4 for the Master.
These levels of study include various “parcours” or paths based on UE (Unités d’Enseignement or Modules), each worth a defined number of European credits (ECTS). A student “capitalises” these credits which are generally transferable between paths. A Licence is awarded once 180 ECTS have been obtained. A Master is awarded once 120 additional credits have been obtained.
Licence and Master degrees are offered within specific DOMAINES and carry a specific mention. Specialities which are either research-oriented or professionally-oriented during the second year of the Master. There are also Professional Licences whose objective is immediate job integration. It is possible to later return to school through continuing education or to validate professional experience (through VAE, Validation des Acquis de l’Expérience).
Higher education in France is divided between grandes écoles and public universities. Grandes écoles admit the pocessors of the level Baccalauréat + 2 years of validated study whereas universities admit "all" Baccalauréa -possessors.
A striking trait of French higher education, compared with other countries, is the small size and multiplicity of establishments, each specialized in a more or less broad spectrum of areas. A middle-sized French city, such as Grenoble or Nancy , may have 2 or 3 universities (focused on science or sociological studies), and also a number of engineering and other specialized higher education establishments. In Paris and its suburbs there are 13 universities, none of which is specialized in one area or another, and a large number of smaller institutions which are highly specialised.
It is not uncommon for graduate teaching programs (master's degrees, the course part of PhD programs etc.) to be operated in common by several institutions, allowing the institutions to present a larger variety of courses.
In engineering schools and the professionals’ degrees of universities, a large share of the teaching staff is often made up of non-permanent professors; instead, part-time professors are hired to teach one specific point only. These part-time professors are generally hired from neighboring universities, research institutes, or industries.
Another original feature of the French higher education system is that a large share of the scientific research is not done by universities, but by research establishments such as CNRS or INSERM. In many cases, the research units of those establishments are installed inside universities (or other higher education establishments), and jointly operated by the research establishment and the university.
Since higher education is funded by the state, the fees are very low; the tuition varies from 150€ to 700€ depending on the university and the different levels of education. (licence, master, doctorate). One can therefore get a Master's degree (in 5 years) for about 750-3,500€. Additionally, students from low-income families can apply for scholarships, paying nominal sums for tuition or textbooks, and can receive a monthly stipend of up to 450€/month.
The tuition in public engineering schools is comparable to universities, albeit a little higher (around 700€). However it can reach 7000€ a year for private engineering schools, and some business schools, which are all private or partially private, charge up to 8900€ a year.
Health insurance for students is free until the age of 21, so only the living costs and books expenses have to be added. After the age of 21 the health insurance for students costs 200 € a year and cover most of the medical expenses.
Although this is the case in many schools, some public schools have other ways of gaining money. Some do not receive sufficient funds from the government to hold many trips, and so these schools may ask for a small (optional) entrance fee for new students.
Universities in France
The public universities in France are named after the big cities near which they are located, followed by a numeral if there are several. Paris, for example, has thirteen universities, labelled Paris I to XIII. Some of them are, however, not in Paris itself, but in the suburbs. In addition, most of the universities have taken a more informal name which is usually the one of a personality or a particular place. Sometimes, it is also a way to honor a famous alumnus, for example the science university in Strasbourg is known as "Université Louis Pasteur" while its official name is "Université Strasbourg I".
The French system is currently undergoing a reform, the Bologna process, which aims at creating European standards for university studies, most notably a similar time-frame everywhere, with three years devoted to the Bachelor's degree ("licence" in French), two for the Master's, and three for the doctorate. French universities have also adopted the ECTS credit system (for example, a licence is worth 180 credits). However the traditional curriculum based on end of semester examinations still remains in place in most universities. This double standard has added complexity to a system which also remains quite rigid. It is difficult to change a major during undergraduate studies without losing a semester or even a whole year. Students usually also have few course selection options once they enroll in a particular diploma.
France also hosts various branch colleges of foreign universities. These include Baruch College, the University of London Institute in Paris, Parsons Paris School of Art and Design and the American University of Paris.