Finding your feet at French university

lasorbonnedo you know someone who is hoping to go on exchange to France? Or perhaps you’re a teacher dreaming of making the big move?

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

placedelasorbonneAnother 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.

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Photography by Selina Sykes.

About the Contributor

Selina Sykes

After having spent an Erasmus year in Paris, I have well and truly fallen under France’s mysterious spell. I am a graduate in French and History hoping to channel my love for French language and culture into a future career in journalism. Mes coups de cœur for Paris and all things French can be found in my blog.

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  1. Sandra E Brown Oct 3, 2013 at 3:27 PM - Reply

    This was an interesting article and a taste of what it would be like to study in France. That is something I’m assessing as an option so the article was timely.

  2. Selina Sykes Oct 3, 2013 at 7:29 PM - Reply

    Glad to hear! Where are you thinking about studying?

    • Sandra E Brown Oct 4, 2013 at 10:40 AM - Reply

      As a over-educated mature age /student/person I’d have to be a little insane to even contemplate studying anywhere again but … I’m looking at options in Paris. It’s an idea that has just been forming more and more as I plan to live in Paris next year and need to assess all options. Studying in France would give my goals more stability.

  3. Alex Mottershead Oct 3, 2013 at 10:44 PM - Reply

    Hi Selina
    Really glad you’re enjoying your year abroad!
    I spent a year in Nantes a few years ago and, whilst I was teaching, a few of my friends attended universities and they too struggled with the anonymity of the student life over there.
    I became friends with some French students – some of whom were still living with their parents and the majority had all been friends for years – no wonder it’s tough to become friends with them. I definitely think you’re right – joining societies is a great way to get to know everyone without acting a bit stalker-ish!

  4. Selina Sykes Oct 4, 2013 at 12:43 AM - Reply

    Hi Alex
    I’ve sadly just got back from my year abroad and back at my final year of uni en Angleterre! I was also lucky enough to become friends with French students – a mixture of which either lived at home or had come from far – including Martinique! The number of societies is no way comparable to the amount in British universities, however I made the most of the Erasmus one at the Sorbonne which was great!

  5. Alex Mealey Oct 4, 2013 at 3:11 PM - Reply

    Hi Selina, I really enjoyed comparing my Australian Uni experience to your description of French and British uni life. I think Australian universities are run in a very similar manner to British universities.

    But I would love to hear your thoughts on the pros and cons of having more contact hours for an arts subject and less open discussion during class. Did you find this beneficial or detrimental?

  6. Selina Sykes Oct 4, 2013 at 6:16 PM - Reply

    Good luck! I would love to live in Paris after my degree, though as I think you are probably finding, I would probably have to study a masters in France to become more unemployable!

  7. Selina Sykes Oct 4, 2013 at 6:23 PM - Reply

    Hi Alex

    Glad you enjoyed it! Its a tough one – the way the arts is taught in both countries is very different. I would say in Britain we are expected to do a lot of reading so that we can contribute in seminars, whereas in France they do much less (and have less time to do so) and therefore the classes are a lot less interactive. We are also expected to do a lot of assessed work in Britain and need enough free time to do so, whereas the system in France is far more exam-based.

    I think a healthy balance between the two would be perfect – sometimes the amount of hours in France got too much, whereas in Britain a lot of arts students, especially in earlier years, often feel cheated by the lack of contact hours in their timetable.

    • Alex Mealey Oct 8, 2013 at 12:06 PM - Reply

      Thanks for your response Selina. It sounds like a balance between the two would be the best of both worlds! 🙂

  8. Esme Wakefield Oct 5, 2013 at 1:05 AM - Reply

    Great article Selina!
    I too, have just got back from my year abroad, spent studying at Lyon 2 university. It was the time of my life, and although there were some irritating times spent waiting (when you could be exploring!) it was all worth it.
    I liked being able to create my own timetable at the beginning of each semester, something that doesn’t happen (at least at my home university) in the UK. Although often ‘dans le noir’ about certain things I didn’t want to get there knowing it all – finding out is part of the experience as you’ll know.
    Are you planning to go and live in Paris or France post-uni?

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