How to speak the language of French Higher Education and Research Part 2: Glossary


With its grandes écoles, non selective universités and ever increasing number of acronyms, the French system of Higher Education and Research has always been difficult to understand. However, even France seems willing to try to change. This does not mean that no new acronyms have been invented (PRES, FCS, IDEX, CGI, etc.), but it does mean that France has prepared itself to enter the global landscape of Higher Education and Research. In 2011, after five years of reforms, a new landscape began to emerge which has not yet stabilised. Back then, Solange Chavel and Sebastian Stride wrote a short guide to the reforms, the understanding of which remains crucial for grasping current French debates.

AERES (Agence d’évaluation de la recherche et de l’enseignement supérieur): Evaluation Agency for Research and Higher Education.

As an independent administrative authority set up in 2007, the AERES is tasked with evaluating research and higher education institutions, research organisations, research units, higher education programmes and degrees and with approving their staff evaluation procedures. It is a member of the ENQA (European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education) and included in the EQAR (European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education).

ANR (Agence nationale de la recherche): National Agency for Research

Funding agency for research created in February 2005. The ANR provides funding for short-term research projects based on systematic calls for projects. The ANR has played a key role in moving towards project-based research and away from research dependent on regular funding to laboratories.

BTS (Brevet de technicien supérieur): Advanced Technician Certificate

Vocational training certificate taken at the end of a two-year higher education course, comparable to the British “Higher National Diploma” or the American “Associate of Science degree” (A.S.) or “Associate of Arts” (A.A.) degree.

CGI (Commissariat général à l’investissement):

The CGI is responsible for overseeing the investissement d’avenir* programme. The team, directed by R. Ricol, answers directly to the Prime Minister of France.

CIFRE (Conventions industrielles de formation par la recherche): Industrial Agreements for Training through Research

This programme aims to develop public-private research partnerships by enabling private companies to receive funding to hire a PhD student developing a research project under the supervision of a public laboratory.

CNU (Conseil national des universités): National Council of Universities

The CNU is a national agency responsible for defining the way enseignants-chercheurs* are qualified, recruited and promoted in universités*.

CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique): National Centre of Scientific Research

The CNRS is a government-funded research organisation under the administrative authority of the French Ministry of Research. It is the largest fundamental science agency in Europe. Most CNRS employees work in laboratories attached to other institutions.

CPGE (Classe préparatoire aux grandes écoles): Preparatory course for grandes écoles

Immediately after high school, an important percentage of the best students choose to enter a CPGE. For 2 or 3 years, CPGEs provide very intensive training in a large set of disciplinary fields. There are three main sections: science (maths, physics, biology, chemistry), the humanities (literature, philosophy, history, foreign languages) or the social sciences (philosophy, economy, sociology, maths). After 2 years, the student usually attempts to enter a grande école* through a competitive exam.

CPU (Conférence des Présidents d’Université): Association of Presidents of French Universities

The CPU meets regularly and plays an important role both by publishing proposals and lobbying. Its President is currently Louis Vogel (President of Université Paris 2).

Enseignant-Chercheur: Teaching and Research Staff

This is a specifically French administrative category that includes about 65% of academic staff in Higher Education and Research institutions, but excludes research (for example CNRS members) and 14,000 teaching staff from secondary education who work in Higher Education but are not formally involved in research activities.

EPA (Établissement public à caractère administratif):

see Legal Status.

EPCS (Établissement public de coopération scientifique):

see Legal Status.

EPIC (Établissement public à caractère industriel et commercial):

see Legal Status.

EPSCP (Établissement public à caractère scientifique, culturel et professionnel):

see Legal Status.

EPST (Établissement public à caractère scientifique et technologique):

see Legal Status.

EQUIPEX (équipement d’excellence): Equipment of Excellence

The EQUIPEX call for projects (1 billion euros) is part of the investissement d’avenir* programme. It will finance the purchase of cutting-edge equipment.

FCS (Fondation de coopération scientifique): Scientific Research Foundation

see Legal Status.

Grandes écoles:

Grandes écoles (a specific type of Higher Education and Research institution, most of which would be classified as universities or engineering schools in other countries)

Students usually enter a grande école after a competitive exam for the last year of Licence (L3), after 2 or 3 years spent in the classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles  (CPGE*). Among the most famous and competitive ones, the École polytechnique and the École normale supérieure (Ulm) are the two top-ranking French institutions in the QS and THE university rankings.

Grand Établissement:

see Legal Status.

IDEX (Initiative d’excellence): Excellence initiative

The IDEX call for projects (7.7 billion euros) is part of the Investissement d’avenir* programme. It will finance the creation of 5 to 10 world-class comprehensive universities.

IHU (Institut hospitalo-universitaire): University Hospital Institute

The IHU for projects (850 million euros) is part of the Investissement d’avenir* programme. It will finance the development of 6 joint hospital-university research institutes.

INRIA (Institut national de recherche en informatique et en automatique): National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control

The INRIA is a government-funded research organisation under the administrative authority of the French Ministries of Research and Industry. It is specialised in mathematics and computer science. Most INRIA employees work in laboratories attached to other institutions.

INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale): French National Institute of Health and Medical Research

The INSERM is a government-funded research organisation under the administrative authority of the French Ministries of Research and Health. It is specialised in the health sector. Most INSERM employees work in laboratories attached to other institutions.

Instituts Carnot: Carnot Institute

Created in 2005 and currently held by 34 institutions, this label is awarded to research institutions that develop partnership research with companies.

Investissement d’avenir: Investment for the Future

Launched in 2010, the programme Investissement d’avenir will invest 35 billion euros in order to ensure the future of the country. Out of those 35 billion, 21.9 are specifically aimed at Higher Education and Research and will be distributed thanks to a series of calls such as IDEX*, EQUIPEX*, LABEX*, SATT*, IHU*, IRT *, etc.

IRT (Institut de recherche technologique): Institutes for technological research

The IRT call for projects (2 billion euros) is part of the Investissement d’avenir* programme. It will finance the creation of strategic partnerships between the public and private sectors in order to reinforce the pôles de compétitivité, develop R&D and create jobs.

IUT (Instituts Universitaires de Technologie):University Institutes for Technology

The IUT are institutes within a university specialised in technical training and deliver a DUT (diplôme universitaire de technologie) after a two-year course.

LABEX (laboratoire d’excellence): Labs of excellence

The LABEX call for projects (1 billion euros) is part of the Investissement d’avenir* programme. It will finance the development of world-class laboratories around specific research topics.

Legal Status:

Most (but not all) institutions are included in the legal category Établissement public à caractère scientifique, culturel et professionnel (EPSCP). This category regroups over 130 institutions and includes five main types: universités (80 in France), autonomous higher education institutes, Écoles Normales Supérieures, French institutes abroad and grands établissements.

Other legal categories include:

–          Établissement public à caractère administratif (EPA), which include a number of so-called “grandes écoles”, such as the École Polytechnique or Mines ParisTech;

–          Établissement public à caractère scientifique et technologique (EPST), which include the major national research institutions such as the CNRS, INRIA, INSERM, INED, etc.;

–          Établissement public à caractère industriel et commercial (EPIC), such as  the Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES) or the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA) but also public compagnies such as the SNCF.

Finally, there are a number of private Higher Education and Research institutions, including Catholic universities and a number of “grandes écoles” such as HEC, ESSEC.

The reforms currently underway have created two new legal statuses: the établissement public de coopération scientifique (EPCS) and the fondation de coopération scientifique (FCS). These two status aim to enable French Higher Education and Research institutions to fully profit from the new LRU, notably by taking the form of PRES.

LRU (Loi relative aux libertés et responsabilités des universités): Law on the liberties and responsibilities of universities

The LRU, often called the Law on Autonomy of Universities, was passed in August 2007 and enables all universities to manage their budget and human resources and become owners of their real estate.

MESR (Ministère de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche): Ministry of Higher Education and Research

Opération Campus: Operation Campus

Launched in February 2008, this call for projects represents an investment of 5 billion euros for real estate projects for universities. Twelve campuses were selected in 2008.

Organismes de recherche: Research organisations

In France, an important part of research is undertaken in specialised institutions of various size and types. The French Ministry of Higher Education and Research calls these institutions Organismes de Recherche. Some, such as the CNRS, are large non-specialised agencies with a status of EPST* whose employees work within other institutions. However, this category also includes institutions such as the Institut Pasteur and Institut Curie, which are highly specialised foundations.

Pôles de compétitivité: Competitivity clusters

Launched in 2005 as part of a new industrial strategy, the pôles de compétitivité aim to foster the relation between industry, research centres and education institutions in order to promote innovative R&D projects. 71 pôles are currently active, 7 of which are considered on a “global” scale.

PRES (Pôle de recherche et d’enseignement supérieur): Clusters of research and higher education

Created in 2006, the PRES aim to foster synergies in research and education between institutions situated in close proximity. In 2011, there were 21 PRES. Most PRES are expected to become comprehensive universities.

RTRA (Réseaux thématiques de recherche avancée) and RTRS (Réseaux thématiques de recherche et de soins): Thematic network for advanced research and Thematic network for research and medicine

Created thanks to the Law of 2006, these networks bring a critical mass of high-level researchers around a common scientific aim. Twenty-two networks currently exist.

SATT (Société d’accélération de transfert de technologies): Company for accelerating technology transfer

The SATT call for projects (900 million euros) is part of the Investissement d’avenir* programme. It will finance the bringing together university R&D teams in order to mutualise their services of valorisation and make the transfer of technologies more efficient.

SNRI (Stratégie nationale de recherche et d’innovation): National strategy for research and innovation

The SNRI is the general strategic framework of the Ministry of Research and Higher Education.  For the period 2009-2012, it lists five principles and three major lines of research (1. health, well-being, nutrition, biotechs; 2. environment and ecotechs; 3. information, communication and nanotechs).

UMR (Unité mixte de recherche): Research Laboratory

An UMR is the most common administrative status for well-established research laboratories. The status is awarded by the MESR and an Organisme de Recherche such as the CNRS.


The French term is restricted to a specific legal category of Higher Education and Research institutions, which notably implies that universités are non-selective for the undergraduate cycle (with an exception for medical studies). In 2011, there were about 80 universités in France.


Further information

For official information, see: MESR (Ministère de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche) and ANR (Agence nationale de la recherche).

There are many blogs that discuss French Higher Education and Research, notably Educpros. A good non-institutional starting place is Gaïa Universitas.

*Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of SIRIS Lab, nor of SIRIS Academic. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.