Academia and the university system in France

By Eva Kristinova

When you come to university in your first year you have a lot to learn about how it all works. Then, if you decide to spend a year abroad, you often have to go through that learning experience again at your host university. And because there are plenty of other things you could be (and you would probably like to be) doing instead, let me make it a bit easier for some of you. Here are four key aspects of student life and the university system in France that I learned about during my first weeks at Toulouse.

Sciences Po Toulouse

State universities vs. Les Grandes Écoles

There are many universities in France, most of which are state-run. This is by no means a reflection of their quality, although it does mean that you pay significantly less than in the UK (we’re talking in the range of £100-200 per year… and even this amount can be waived completely in certain situations). Then there are the schools you do pay for, and which are dubbed (sometimes contemptuously) by many French people the “elite” schools – Les Grandes Écoles. These are akin to the Ivy League in the US, and are similarly highly selective. If you want to apply to study in one of these on your own, make sure to prepare meticulously. Thankfully, you have a huge advantage – you can study at places like Sciences Po through UoM! So what is studying at Sciences Po actually like?

More modules, less work

A little side note is in order here: I’m a politics student, so what I have to say about modules and style of coursework will mostly (but not exclusively) apply to the social sciences. If your course is similar to mine, chances are that you would have three to four 10 or 20 credit modules per semester at Manchester. In France, you can double that number… and add some more if we are talking about more technical courses. Interestingly, the difference is not so much in the number of teaching hours spent per module, although tutorials in addition to two or three-hour lectures are rare. But unlike modules in the UK, the credit rating for those in France is much lower, which also means you have to spend less time outside of class on independent work – think 20-30 pages of total reading instead of 200. The amount of work expected to be done for assessments is also much lower. In truth, I can only think of one real essay that I have to write this semester, and even that’s less than 1000 words!

Semester 1 Timetable

Methodology of Writing

Speaking of writing essays, I thought that would be something pretty universal… turns out I was wrong there as well. As a part of the course at Sciences Po, I have to take a class on the Methodology of Writing. Sounds simple enough, and to be honest it’s nothing to be hugely worried about, since there are many overlaps with the “English” style. Central difference? Two things: neutral tone and the dreaded problématique. For most politics essays in the UK, you might be asked to provide multiple views on an issue, but ultimately, you are supposed to take a stand! “Do not be vague or neutral, tell me what you think!” you might hear your professor say. Not so in France. Here, everything is supposed to be balanced: you provide one side (thesis), the other side (antithesis), and try to make them meet in the middle (synthesis) – commonly known as the dialectic approach. And above all, please, please, please keep your answers neutral, nobody cares what you personally think.

Then there is the problématique. What is this exactly? I couldn’t tell you to be honest with you. Apparently it’s the central problem, the wider debate around an issue. You are not so much asked to answer the question in front of you, but to define a central problem (in the form of a “to what extent…” question), and answer that instead. Yeah… wish me luck with that.

A slide from the first Methodology of Writing class (Source: S. Schneider) – as you can see I’m not the only one who thinks this is difficult to understand

Student Societies

If you’re like me and do not want to spend your year abroad just studying, there are a number of student societies to get involved in. However, I might be here to take away some of your illusions about societies in France. First, they are very few compared to a uni like Manchester. You might be able to find something you’re interested in, but do not count on it. If you have particular artistic, political, or sports interests, you might want to check out private local organizations and clubs. Second, those that are at Sciences Po tend to be very small and entirely organized by individual students (with no SU to support them). This means it is very difficult for societies to organize larger events, or even regular smaller activities, since everything depends on individual schedules. Finally, if you want to get properly involved in a society, I suggest you brush up on your French. While some societies do make an effort to get international students involved, most of communication is always done in French, and you might (sadly) feel a little excluded if you do not speak it. But I don’t want to give an overly negative impression of the societies here. If you can get involved properly, they can be very welcoming and fun to be a part of.

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