Is the complicated French higher education system holding back its universities?

France's highly complicated higher education system may be holding back its universities when it comes to global rankings.

Is the complicated French higher education system holding back its universities?
French universities traditionally do not shine in world rankings. Photos: AFP

That's the view of one expert as the latest international league table of universities is released – with France trailing again.

Despite what is generally regarded as a good system of education, France consistently scores poorly when its universities are compared to others around the world, particularly the USA.


The latest ranking from the Times Higher Education supplement has the best French university at 45th in the world, while other big names in France trail in at 80th, 93rd and 103rd position.

So what is the problem for France?

The new THE rankings have France's highest ranking university – the relatively newly formed PSL Research University Paris – in 45th position. Formed in 2010, PSL is an umbrella organisation of nine members and 10 associates that organises collaborative research projects.

The Sorbonne came in at 80th, a fall from its previous position at 73, while the Ecole Polytechnique, based in the Paris suburb of Palaiseau, was at 93.

The chart's highest new entry was the newly created University of Paris (created by a merger of Paris Diderot University and two research institutions) at 103 while Télécom Paris rounded off the list at 188.

None of France's universities outside Paris made the list and with just five entries in the top 200, France was trailing countries like the USA (60), the UK (28) Germany (23) and Australia (11).

Yet the French education system is generally viewed as a good one, and French universities are highly popular with overseas students – around 12 percent of students in France are from overseas.

Ellie Bothwell, THE's rankings editor, said: “Our rankings are based on five pillars – teaching, research, research citation (the quality of the research) industry links and international outlook.

“Although French universities have a good reputation and many are doing good research, the structure of higher education is complicated in France and can be hard for people outside France to understand.

“This can affect the international reputation of French universities and reputation has a big impact on their score.

“The rankings also only include institutions that have a certain number of undergraduate courses, so institutions that are post graduate only or heavily research focused do not appear.”

In the past, French universities have also suffered in international rankings because of a lack of research published in English, although an increasing number of international courses taught in English mean that more English research is now published.

University attendance in France is high, with nearly 60 percent of school leavers going on to university, although drop-out rates are also high.

French universities do not all rely on getting certain grades, and tuition fees are low – currently just €170 a year for French students, although these are set to rise.

Because many French students live at home with families throughout their courses, leaving university with a big burden of debt is not usual in France.

But the French system has also opened itself up to charges of elitism due to the Grandes Ecoles – the top French universities that select just a tiny proportion of the population. Although theoretically these are selected on talent and intellect, in reality the system is heavily skewed towards the middle and upper classes.

Emmanual Macron has already pledged that he will scrap the Ecole National d'Administration, the highly selective postgraduate school that has produced four French presidents since it was founded in 1945.

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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.