How to speak the language of French Higher Education and Research Part 1: Translating the reforms of 2011

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.

All terms followed by * are explained in Part 2: The Glossary

The French landscape of Higher Education and Research prior to 2011


The French term universités* is limited to a very specific category of institutions of Higher Education and Research and cannot be used to describe selective institutions (broadly regrouped under the name grandes écoles*), which in most other countries would also be called universities. The non-selective nature of universités leads many of the best high school students to avoid them and choose instead to study in a classe préparatoire des grandes écoles (CPGE)* before passing a competitive exam in order to enter a grande école in their third year.

Furthermore, in most French cities the main université was divided after 1968 into a series of universités often specialised in specific disciplinary fields. This is the reason why neither the University of Paris nor the Sorbonne are currently degree-delivering institutions, and students are instead  in one of 13 Parisian universities.

Finally, a large proportion of the best French scholars are not required to lecture because they are employed by research institutions that are totally autonomous from both the université and grande école, such as the INSERM*, INRIA*or CNRS* (which with 11,450 scholars is one of the largest research institutions in the world). This system, which also exists in Germany (Max Planck Institutes), Russia and the former Soviet Union (Academy of Science), for example, causes an artificial separation between education and research, which results in many of the best scholars having little to no contact with young students.

These examples illustrate the complexity of the French system of Higher Education and Research and explain why one international ranking system, the Australian “High Impact Universities”, chose to rank a virtual university, the “University of Paris” because they considered that the existing institutions were too idiosyncratic to be comparable internationally.

Of course the French are proud to be different, yet they have also long been aware of the lack of attractiveness of the université, the need to internationalise and the problems of governance facing their institutions. This is the reason why the shock caused by international rankings such as Shanghai/ARWU has had the salutary effect of creating a general consensus around the need for reform.

Year 2011: over 35 billion euros to transform French Higher Education and Research

Over the last five years, the French government has therefore launched a series of initiatives to help reform the Higher Education and Research system. The first step included the creation of a legal framework with two major laws, the loi de programme no 2006-450 du 18 avril 2006 pour la recherche and the loi no 2007-1199 du 10 août 2007 relative aux libertés et responsabilités des universités (LRU*). Their implementation was helped by the promise of an increase in funding for Higher Education and Research of 9 billion euros between 2007 and 2012.

These laws transfer control over the budget and human resources from the government to French institutions of Higher Education and Research and give them ownership of their real estate if they so wish. They also enable the creation of pôles de recherche et d’enseignement supérieur (PRES*), some of which (such as Strasbourg) have merged, or are in the process of merging, to create comprehensive universities.


The second step was to launch a series of new funding initiatives, thanks to programmes such as Operation Campus* (5 billion euros) and Investissement d’avenir* (35 billion euros, including 21.9 billion for Higher Education and Research). The calls for projects linked to these programmes are open to all candidates and enable the best institutions of higher education and research to obtain funding to ensure that they are truly competitive on an international scale.

The best known of these calls for projects is the Initiative d’Excellence or Idex*. Loosely modelled on the German Exzellenzinitiative, it aims to enable the emergence of 5 to 7 pluridisciplinary Higher Education and Research centres that will be able to compete with the leading universities in the world and is financed with 7.7 billion euros.


The 2011 project for the French landscape

The process underway should thus result in a much clearer landscape of Higher Education and Research with:

  •  5 to 7 world-class universities, competing to attract the best students and scholars
  • 15 to 20 comprehensive universities
  • A dense network of regional universités
  •  Other institutions, focused on IUT* and BTS* and playing a role comparable to that of community colleges in the United States

The autonomy granted to each institution will ensure that they can evolve and some ambitious universités are likely to emerge and rejoin the leading group. It also means that smaller, highly specialised institutes will be able to remain fully independent if they believe it is in their interest.


In most major French cities, the existing universités and other Higher Education and Research institutions are now members of a single Research and Higher Education Cluster. Most of these clusters are candidates for the IDEX call for projects and many are in the process of merging in order to create truly comprehensive universities. In some cases, the alliances have been expanded to include institutions in other cities in the close vicinity (for example the new University of Lyon has integrated institutions from Saint Étienne).



There is an exceptionally high number of Higher Education and Research institutions in Paris and the surrounding region. Currently, there are 17 universities, various engineering schools, and dozens of other Higher Education and Research institutions of varying size, thematic speciality, vocation and juridical status. This density is a result of the French tradition of centralisation and has been reinforced, over the centuries, by the policies of successive governments to create prestigious institutions with unique statuses. As a result, Paris is today one of the world’s leading cities for Higher Education and Research, but is rarely recognised as such.

Strengthening the Paris brand on a global level clearly requires a simplification of the existing landscape, but this process can only be led by the institutions themselves. Today, five years after the reforms started, there are six consolidated Parisian alliances, most of which will presumably turn into leading comprehensive universities: Paris Sciences et Lettres, Sorbonne Universités, Université Paris Cité, Université Paris-Saclay, Hautes Etudes-Sorbonne-Arts et Métiers and Université Paris Est.

paris sciences et lettres


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