The education system, in France, sways to a somewhat different tune than the usual jazz we are used to – namely, high-school, university undergrad, post grad, and so on and whatever.
The biggest divergence to the university system, that students of most countries come across, is say an entrance examination into one of the professional schools like engineering, medical, etc. More on the likes of getting into the IITs. France, however, does higher education with a bit of their very own je ne sais quoi!
In France, the higher education system has the usual public universities and something very few non-French people have heard of, the Grandes Écoles. These are a unique set of premier schools that we will discuss, to some extent, in this article.
Our focus will be mainly on:
- What are Grandes Ecoles?
- How are they different from the French public universities?
- What do these Grand Ecole institutes specialize in?
- How does a student get admitted to a Grand Ecole institute?
Hopefully, whatever questions you may have regarding this unique French higher-education path will get answered en route to the end of this article.
What are Grandes Ecoles Institutes in France?
As we hinted before, France has a dual university system of higher education – the Universités and the Grandes Ecoles. Grandes Ecoles are the elite education institutes that employ fierce competition towards admission.
Most of these Grandes Ecoles are about the size of a university department, and admit only a few hundred students each year. There are approximately 250 of them, throughout France, compared to less than 100 public Universités.
But the intake of these premier institutes lies at less than 5% of all students in higher education. There are three broad fields of study followed in these elite institutes – Economics and Commerce, Literature, and Science.
The Grandes Ecoles began post the French Revolution as centers of specialized education, based on merit, designed after the military academies of its times.
Top Grand Ecoles
Here’s a list of some of the top Grand Ecoles:
- Ecole Polytechnique for Science and Technology
- Ecole Normale Superieure
- Ecole Naionale d’Administration to train military engineers and university professors
- Hautes Etudes Commerciales or HEC and EDHEC for business studies
- Ecole de Mines, Ecole Centrale
There are others as well. They can be both public or privately funded.
How are Grandes Ecoles different from Public Universities, in France?
Here are some key points in which Universites and Grandes Ecoles diverge, whether in terms of costs, admission criteria, student strength, and even career prospects. We will summarize them in the following list.
Students who want to be admitted to one of the Grandes Ecoles usually undergo two years of rigorous preparation courses called Classes Preparatoires aux Grandes Ecoles (CPGE). These classes, offered in either science, literature or economics, are usually held at lycees or high-schools.
Even admission to these courses is competitive. At the end of the two years, students appear for a nationwide competitive entrance examination to get admitted into the various Grandes Ecoles. Students who are unable to make it, after the CPGE preparation, can transfer into the university system with two years exemption.
Universities, on the other hand, practice open admission. That is, there is no hard-core selection process like in the Ecoles.
There is also a slim, nevertheless existing, possibility for outstanding university students to transfer into one of the Grandes Ecoles, without a competitive examination. This is called Parallel Admission.
International students can apply through application channels offered on the individual school websites. But, as you can imagine, competition is high and exclusivity is maintained.
Both the Universites and Grandes Ecoles follow the European system of higher education, with a total 5 years leading up to qualifications as described below.
Years 1, 2, 3Year 4Year 5Year 5+
|Complete 2nd year with a DEUG and 3rd year with a Licence
|Master DEA or DESS
|Year 1 & 2 in preparatory, followed by 1st year at Grandes Ecoles
|Second year at Grandes Ecoles
|Third year at Grandes Ecoles with specialist qualifications
As mentioned before, the strict admission criteria filter out a large section of higher education aspirants, with the Grandes Ecoles taking in less than 5% of the volume of students. This affords them excellent student/teacher ratio with a rather strong advantage to students under such focused tutelage.
The total number of Grandes Ecoles students are about 80,000 which is a very small number compared to the university students’ orders of magnitude population difference.
Cost and Funding
The cost per year, in specialized Grandes Ecoles, such as an engineering school can be about 25,000 Euros/student. Whereas it barely ever exceeds 10,000 Euros/student in the universities.
Except for private and business schools, though, public schools are funded by the state. Students end up paying only a small sum of the order of 200 Euros.
However, the amount state spends on every student, at one of these elite Ecoles, is about four times higher than the 12,000 spent on a university student.
A lot of Grandes Ecoles students also receive stipends as part of their education. Read List of tuition free universities in Europe for international students and Cheapest countries to study abroad
The Grandes Ecoles strive to keep up with industry and trade demands. Keeping this in mind, a lot of the teaching staff are borrowed industry experts, besides the permanent teaching members. This also helps to keep channels open for employment demands and opportunities upon graduation.
Internships too, are a big part of the curriculum. For instance, at least 28 weeks are dedicated towards internships, at engineering schools, whereas graduates choosing a professional field at a university rarely intern for more than 20 to 25 weeks.
According to a 2005 REFLEX (Research into Employment and Professional Flexibility) project, 74% of graduates from Grandes Ecoles, are offered permanent employment on their first jobs as compared to 36% for DEA and DESS graduates.
According to the Conference des Grandes Ecoles, an association for members of the elite institutions, well over 85% of graduates find employment within the first four months of graduation. They also tend to draw more salary (about 500 to 1000 Euros) more than university graduates.
Besides the above stats, French employers are generally known to be more inclined to hire Ecoles graduates to higher positions. Nearly 84% of Grandes Ecoles graduates are comfortably positioned as managers to 64% of university graduates.
How do the Grandes Ecoles Rank in the World University Rankings?
Even though they have a near royal status of education and employment, in France, some of the popular French Universities rank quite well as compared to the Grandes Ecoles, in world university rankings.
Here are some of the French higher education institutes and universities that have featured in The World University Rankings of 2023.
|University/Institute in France
|World University Ranking
|Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris
|University Paris Saclay
|Institute Polytechnique de Paris
|Institute Paris City
|Ecole des Ponts Paris Tech
What are the advantages and disadvantages of studying at Grandes Ecoles?
Grandes Ecoles are premier institutions in France, and there is no doubt about that. They come with their brand name, quality, and endless opportunities to make a successful career. Basically, they enjoy all the package advantages, we have mentioned, in the section where we compared them to the University system in France.
However, having sung their praises, it is important to mention the criticism that these elite institutes have received over the years. Most of them stem from the high social perception of graduates from these institutes as compared to the rest of the population.
They are often accused of creating a certain class system whereby Grandes Ecoles graduates, in France, receive better employment, and higher growth, as compared to others. This usually stems from the already highly selective admission process at these institutes that the employers use as pre-determined talent filters.
Although, there are other factors that perpetuate their legacy. All top management, who themselves are mostly Ecoles graduates, prefer hiring from the same brand. This creates an often unfair distinction which puts deserving university graduates at a disadvantage. The problem of such a leadership body also creates an inherent problem of lack of diversity.
While another big problem, as many sources point out, is the tendency of employers to overlook crucial skills present in job applicants from all kinds of education backgrounds. Social and leadership skills often take a backseat when compared to the skills of ‘analytical thinking’, ‘mastery of field’, and the ‘capacity to perform under pressure’, that Ecoles graduates are famous for.
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- MBA in France
- Why do an MBA in Europe- UK, France, Spain
- Life as a student in the EDHEC MBA Program in France
- EDHEC MBA with scholarship despite low GMAT
- HEC Paris success story with low GMAT
- International student life in France at EDHEC