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French higher education system

Different from Chinese and US higher education systems, the French one features universities and “great schools” (Grandes Écoles in French), with the latter regarded as the typically French educational model. The “great schools” are some of the elite institutes in France that include engineering, medical, normal and business institutes.

French students have to take an examination for the baccalauréat (BAC) qualification after three years in high school. Those passing the exam would receive the bac qualification, equivalent to the high school diploma, and would be eligible for direct admission to universities. Based on their performance in high school, students can either sign up for universities, or enter preparatory engineering education for two years before taking a competitive exam organized by an engineering institute (or an alliance of engineering institutes) for formal engineering education. Students who obtain an engineering degree at an engineering institute, equivalent to a master’s degree in China, can opt to continue their studies for a doctoral program.

In France, it is usually far more difficult to get admitted to engineering institutes than to universities, due to higher admission standards of the former. Students have to study basic courses at a preparatory school for engineering studies for at least two years before being allowed to enter an engineering institute. It is estimated that approximately 10% of French high school students study at preparatory schools for engineering studies, only fewer than half of whom are eligible for studies at engineering institutes.

French Engineering Education
Structure of the French higher education system
French engineering education system
As part of the Grandes Écoles elite education system in France, the French engineering education is a unique educational establishment at the apex of the country’s higher education hierarchy. In the 18th century, some institutes were established to adapt to social and economic development as well as scientific and technological progress, to avoid the problem of theoretical studies deviating from practicalities that traditional national universities had faced, and to nurture practical elites. These institutes were reformed and evolved in the Napoleonic era, securing its position as a form of elite education in French higher education establishment. They have thus become one of the main ways for people to break into the elite, as evidenced by remarkably high employment rates and social status of graduates from engineering institutes and by 60% of presidents and a majority of senior executives in French top 100 businesses coming from engineering institutes. Hence, young holders of diploma of French engineering institutes are exceedingly competitive in the job market and enjoy a strong sense of identity in the society.

French engineering institutes are uniquely characterized by:
Higher admission criteria and smaller scale
Higher admission criteria and smaller scale

Engineering institutes in France usually have much fewer students than universities in the country that are often home to several thousand or even tens of thousands of students. An engineering institute usually admits a few hundred students, and some of the best engineering institutes, such as MINES, ENPC and ENSTA, even have only 100 students or so in each grade, with the student-instructor ratio reaching as ridiculously high as 1:2. The competitive exams for admission to these institutes ensure a steady flow of excellent students, and with the small-scale education, each student would have access to adequate instructional resources and a sound educational environment.

High-standard curriculum and strict tracking system
High-standard curriculum and strict tracking system

French engineering institutes have a tight schedule for curriculum, with around 40 hours per week dedicated to classroom instruction, which undoubtedly presents a challenge to students but guarantees the wide recognition of the diplomas of the institutes. They are different from universities, in that they have strict evaluation tracking systems running through basic education in preparatory studies and specialized education in formal studies that can help students develop good learning habits and lay a solid foundation for academic disciplines.

Up-to-date knowledge relating to academic disciplines and cross-platform education
Up-to-date knowledge relating to academic disciplines and cross-platform education

Instructors at engineering institutes can change the instruction schedule and content at any time within the basic syllabus, regardless of basic or specialized courses. For specialized courses in particular, instructors would revise the instructional content based on the latest developments in specific industries or the latest moves of some businesses. And many specialized courses are even jointly developed by instructors and businesses to ensure students can put as much knowledge as possible to practice and keep abreast of global updates.

For basic education in preparatory engineering studies in France, an unique instructional system is in place. Students with primary studies in mathematics and physics have to take generally three types of courses (mathematics, sciences and philosophy) in the first two years of their basic education. Each type of courses is taught by the same instructor or the same instructional team, and instructors can switch between academic disciplines and make comparisons to help students develop broad vision and flexible thinking.

Strong academic teams in close collaboration with businesses in instruction
Strong academic teams in close collaboration with businesses in instruction

The instructional teams at French engineering institutes can be described as outstanding instructors. As instructors have to teach different academic disciplines in the phase of preparatory education, they are required to have a very solid knowledge base. But in the phase of specialized education, many instructors are some of the international top experts specializing in a specific field, and many institutes would recruit experienced engineers from businesses to teach students based on real-world cases to deepen their understanding of academic disciplines and get a sense of what it feels like to work in a business.

Hands-on skills and innovation encouraged to develop problem-solving capabilities
Hands-on skills and innovation encouraged to develop problem-solving capabilities

French engineering institutes are committed to nurturing students that can meet social and corporate needs, which explains why there are many courses for practice and experiments as well as facilities and studios for conducting experiments to encourage students to think while working. In particular, the experiments that students have to conduct in their courses are based on business demands, and aimed at helping students develop problem-solving skills and gain experience for their work in the future.

Many French engineering institutes also provide excellent doctoral degree programmes, such as École Polytechnique, which is home to around 450 doctors and quite a few Nobel laureates and has been at the forefront of research in many fields across the globe.

A variety of business internship programmes and good prospects for development
A variety of business internship programmes and good prospects for development

French engineering education places a high value on relations with the business community. Business clubs are seen in most engineering institutes, where businesses are allowed to get involved in instruction and student studies, as reflected below:

 Business involvement in institute management. The president or general manager of a big enterprise, often an alumnus or alumna, serves as the part-time president of the council of each institute. Senior executives often make up half of the council members and are involved in developing strategies for the institutes, discussing revisions to instructional plans and predicting student employment opportunities.

 Business staff involvement in instruction to provide the latest technologies, materials and news in specific industries

  Students on short (3-6 months) or long (12 months) internship programmes in businesses as an integral part of instruction. Students are required to engage in internship programmes during the period of their study as per instructional regulations: a two-month internship programme in the first academic year to gain a full understanding of the research institute or the business; a practical internship programme at the end of the second academic year where students work as technicians, or a short internship programme with a duration of 3-6 months or a long internship programme with a duration of a year or so; and a graduate internship with a duration of around 6 months in the third academic year.

 Production equipment donated or lent by businesses to engineering institutes for instructional purposes.

A global network of alumni
A global network of alumni

Each engineering institute has a time-honoured and strong alumni association. Such associations are connected to form a network that extends to every part of the globe and every field. An alumnus or alumna who holds an important post in a business usually chairs the alumni association, whose day-to-day operations are managed by designated people. The alumni association is primarily committed to helping graduates find jobs or alumni get re-employed or find new positions by organizing job fairs and institute-business workshops. It is also tasked with expanding the institute’s domestic and international impact with the support of the alumni network.


Summary: French engineering education is a characteristic educational system dating back to the 18th century when the society craved scientific and technological productivity and versatile talents specializing in engineering management in the European industrial revolution. For the past 200 years and more, the French engineering institutes have been the incubators of talents for both French and global scientific, business, military and political communities, and have created a unique model for elite development throughout constant reform and optimization. As President of the Paris Institute of Political Studies Frédéric Mion said, our goal is not to create an elite club, but to try to educate and train students to help them become the elite. After the study at engineering institutes, students would have a solid base of knowledge relating to academic disciplines and problem-solving and communication skills. There must be something that one can learn from in the educational model of engineering institutes, as they have only two to three hundred students but some of their students have become the winners of some of the top scientific prizes such as the Nobel Prize and the Fields Medal, business magnates as well as French generals and presidents.

Note: The content below is excerpted from the paper - Learn from the French Elite Engineering Education Model to Provide New Inspiration for Instruction of Basic Courses for Higher Education in Engineering (Li Ping, Zhong Shengyi, Li Junyan and Ou Yafei).