How studying in the UK is different to France

From Freshers week to dressing up, Parisian journalist Priscillia Charles, who recently spent a year studying in the North East of England, points out the main differences between student life on both sides of the Channel.

How studying in the UK is different to France
Parisian Priscillia Charles spent a year studying at Newcastle University in the North East of England. Photo: Private

We might be neighbours, separated by only a few miles of open water, but the way we experience university life is completely different. As soon as I started my year studying for a master's degree in Newcastle, it seemed like I was stepping into a different world.

1. Let's start at the beginning: 'Freshers Week'

Those two words might be familiar to you but they certainly aren't for us French. Indeed, our "Freshers Week" basically means the first week of lectures in the academic year as opposed to what happens across the Channel.

So imagine my reaction when I was confronted with hordes of students dressed in fancy dress ready to take the city's bars by storm seven nights in a row and drink until the morning. Let's just say it wasn't quite what I expected. 

Although French students also drink, they often do so more moderately, placing more importance on the actual atmosphere of their usual waterhole rather than the quantities served there. In Paris for example, it’s common for students to share a bottle of wine or two by the Seine River rather than partaking in a drinking contest at the student union.

2. Then there are the 'societies'

Once the academic year had officially started it was time to join a society. It's difficult to beat British universities on that point. Thanks to concerts, themed parties, balls, sports competitions etc. every week was jam-packed full of activities and there was never a moment to get bored on campus.

While French universities offer the chance to join a few “associations”, it's certainly not comparable to what my British university had to offer: Bollywood, Cocktail or even Pokemon societies, there was something to suit all tastes… even a French society!

3. Dressing up

Yes, we do like to dress up in France, but not quite as much as the British and in slightly different way. I have never had to buy as many outfits for events such as fancy dress or formal parties as I did in the 12 months I spent in England. And speaking of themed parties, the ‘fancy dress’ passion still remains one of the mysteries of British university life to me. Yes, I was invited to a few themed costume parties while I was a student back home, but nowhere near as many as in the United Kingdom.

I can recall the stupefaction of my fellow countrymen on social networks, astonished by the number of pictures where I appeared dressed up as a zoo animal, pirate or Ancient Egyptian etc.

4. Accommodation

Choosing accommodation in Newcastle was also a big deal. Most British undergraduates choose to live on campus during their first year or in halls of residence, but in France people don't always choose to do this. We tend to rent a flat in the centre of the city instead. My experience of university accommodation in England was both exciting but also challenging, because I had to share a flat with students from seven different countries and had to get along with them, which was, let’s be honest, not always easy to do. 

But then again, it saves you a bunch of money, allows you to learn how to say “hello”, “goodbye” and “cheers” in a multitude of different languages and you get to try your hand at diplomacy when that mountain of dirty dishes in the sink just never seems to shrink.

Although the French experience will most likely buy you the private space you don’t get in halls, you have to be organized enough to be able to cook, shower, study and sleep on a very pricey 20 square metres or less.

5. Studying

Studying in another country can turn out to be quite challenging, especially if it is not your mother tongue and if you are not used to another university code. One of the things that surprised me the most was the support that lecturers and university staff members were offering at all times. I was assigned a personal tutor (who also happened to be one of my lecturers) from the start, whom I felt I could easily talk to about academic or even personal problems. This was a big change for me since I was not used to this kind of personal approach from lecturers, as opposed to French universities, where this kind of “lecturer-tutor” system is not as widespread.

Another aspect of the British university system that surprised me was the importance placed on plagiarism. Indeed, not that it is not the case in France, but for the first time in my student life I experienced having to submit my essays to a special software that would check my work before my professor.  

6. Last but not least… the graduation ceremony

Graduating from a British university was probably one of the most exciting parts of the year for me. Not only because it meant being able to wear a graduation gown, shaking the vice-chancellor’s hand and posing for official photographs, but also because, unlike in France, I felt rewarded for my hard work.

Indeed, in France, graduation ceremonies remain rare and only take place in some business schools that tend to adopt the ‘Anglo way’ of celebrating their students’ graduation.

Instead the tradition here is to just go to university to check our results on a list or simply wait for a letter to formalize the completion of our degree. Not as glamourous as the British way, sadly. You can understand my excitement as I was called up on stage to collect my degree.

All in all, this year was full of surprises and cultural differences not always easy to deal with, but if I could do it all over again, I would do so instantly.

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France to make period products free for students

The French government said on Tuesday it would make period products free for students, joining a global drive to end "period poverty" - the inability to pay for menstrual protection.

France to make period products free for students
Last year, Scotland became the first country in the world to offer free universal access to period products. Photo: Andy Buchanan / AFP

Higher Education Minister Frederique Vidal said that machines containing free tampons, sanitary towels and other period products would be installed in student residences and university health services in the coming weeks.

She added that the government aimed to make period protection “completely free of charge” for all by the start of the next academic year in September.

In November, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for all, blazing a trail that inspired feminists and anti-poverty campaigners around the world to also take up the issue of period poverty.

In England, free period products are available in all primary and secondary schools – a move New Zealand said last week it too would implement.

In December, President Emmanuel Macron had promised to also address the issue of period poverty.

Commenting on the plight of homeless women, he noted that “the fact of having your period in the street and to not be able to buy something to protect yourself and preserve your dignity” added to the humiliation they suffered.

The move to make sanitary protection free for students comes amid a growing focus on youth poverty following shock images of food banks being swamped by hard-up students due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many students say they are struggling to make ends meet after losing part-time jobs in cafes and restaurants which have been closed for months due to the health crisis.