Finding your feet at French university
Last year, I was thrilled to find out that I achieved my dream year abroad placement at the Sorbonne (Paris IV).
I had a romanticised vision of attending one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world; of walking through the cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter where the famous scenes of May ’68 had taken place.
However, reality soon hit home. France and Britain may be separated by a short stretch of water, yet when it comes to education, administration and culture, the two are worlds apart.
Encounters with famed French bureaucracy
Anyone who has lived in France will know that the French are renowned for bureaucracy and excessive paperwork. Though the English may like to queue, I personally had never battled through endless lines of students during enrolment.
“Is anything done online?” I asked.
When it comes to administration, the French like good, old-fashioned pen and paper.
Lesson number one: Go prepared and take every form of paperwork imaginable. European health card, proof of address, passport photos… You name it – chances are you’ll get asked for it.
Lesson number two: Do not turn up at a French office after 11:30am – staff often knock-off early for their two-hour lunch break.
Down to details: what’s different about French education?
French university is far more traditional when it comes to teaching style. My first surprises were the 8am starts for lectures and comparably huge class sizes.
France and Britain may be separated by a short stretch of water, yet when it comes to education, administration and culture, the two are worlds apart.
British university also involves plenty of open discussion and interaction between lecturers and students. In France, lecturers talk and students listen. Whilst French learning is focused on knowledge and fact, individual opinion and personal learning is far more encouraged back home.
As an arts student, my timetable never surpassed ten hours of contact time a week in the UK. In Paris, however, I found that my class time had almost doubled, with lectures lasting up to three hours without breaks. Although there is much debate about rising fees and disproportionate contact hours in England, I could not help but feel as though I was back at school.
The French university experience
Another huge difference is life outside of the classroom. The ‘university experience’ is highly valued in British culture. It is a student’s first real taste of independence: learning to party and work hard whilst living far from home.
The tendency in France, however, is to not stray too far, with students either living with their family or going home at weekends. Erasmus students therefore stick together and often struggle to make French friends.
Having always had a solid network of friends facilitated by communal student accommodation and the campus environment, I admittedly struggled at first with the anonymity of French student life. I was determined, however, to integrate and succeeded in finding a number of Francophone friends. The best way to go about this is to join as many societies as possible.
Falling for France
Although adjusting to the university system took time, I instantly fell for the charm of Paris. Being immersed into another culture, language and way of life is a challenge at first. However my year in France was without doubt the richest, most fulfilling and best year of my life.
What are your experiences of the French university system? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.
Think Selina’s experiences could be of use to someone you know? Share this article with someone special by clicking the envelope to the right.Photography by Selina Sykes.