England or France for university?

The big dilemma in our lives at the moment is helping older daughter decide where to go to university, and so far we've not been much use.

The first decision is whether England or France is the 'best' option and there doesn't seem to be an easy answer...each have their own merits, and expats with university level children all have a different story to tell. Whatever the reasons, a great deal of expat children return to the UK to go to university.

I've tried to list the advantages of each below, as I understand them. Since these are based as much on gossip and hearsay as factual information, all useful input and guidance is very welcome, especially where what I've been told is completely wrong!

Benefits and disadvantages of going to university in England

There is said to be more 'open discussion' between lecturers and students in UK universities

Better student environment and more extra-curricular activities  - many students in France go to university close to home and go home at weekends, which means university social life is less exciting.

It will ensure that her level of written and spoke English is comparable with any other UK based student

Benefits and disadvantages of going to university in France

Universities in France are much cheaper, and students don't leave university with a large debt. Bourses are also sometimes available (but means-tested). Undoubtedly it will be much cheaper for us as well as her if she stays in France, but I'm trying to ignore that for the moment!

Learning tends to be by rote in Frech universities, more like an extension of school, with lecturers less open to discussion and criticism. Although this sounds like a disadvantage, getting down to actual 'learning' isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's a question of degree!

Large class sizes - in France universities tend to use success in courses as selection criteria rather than interviews etc, so it's generally easier to get in - but there is a higher dropout rate, especially in the first year.

It will ensure complete fluency in French at all levels


I'm guessing that a degree from a respectable French university carries the same weight for future career prospects as a degree from a similar quality university in Britain, and the subjects will be taught to a reasonably similar level...

...but it is also often said that because the UK school system is quite poor, despite A grade exams being awarded to a high percentage of students, universities need to spend the first year 'catching up' to the level that schools used to reach. Presumably if true this means that the degree also ends up being lower quality.

...and I also suspect it will be easier to get a job in an English company with a degree from France than vice-versa - the French are quite protective about their job market and I have a feeling they will often tend to opt for someone with a degree from France, whereas English companies will just choose the best candidate, regardless of which country the degree comes from. So might a degree from England be ruling out future job prospects in France?

In recent discussions about university choices in her class at lycée, our daughter was startled by how many people said they were going to a nearby university so they didn't have to be away from home too much. (Sounds a bit unimaginative perhaps, but also shows how important family is in French society, much more so than in the UK, which is no bad thing.)

Of course, the real answer is perhaps for a student to just go where they like, according to the course on offer. Things usually turn out OK anyway, but it would be interesting to hear any experiences that might help me sound like a more useful and knowledgeable parent!

Advertisement (place your ad here)


  1. Jon in France November 7, 2010 at 9:29 am

    Tricky. British universities do get better rankings in all those international tables, but this has a great deal to with the fact that universities in the UK carry out a lot of research while in France much of this is done in external institutions – comparing apples with pears in other words.

    That the quality of undergraduates is falling in the UK is beyond doubt: dumbing down of A levels – particularly in maths and science – has reached proposterous levels. Friends of mine teach in universities in the UK and all of them tell the same tales of spending the first year teaching their A* grade charges stuff that a few years ago would have been taught at A level.

    This will inevitably feed through to the perceived valued of degrees. The league tables can say what they want, but it is the opinion of employers that really counts. Certainly in the industry I worked in, away from the top-ten UK establishments we didn’t really bother looking too hard. European degrees, however, we valued very highly.

    That said, the first year at French universities can be absolute chaos since preselection on the basis of suitability is not practices and real teaching has to wait until the hopeless are weeded out by the end of year exams, which is hardly condusive to good education.

    Good luck!

  2. Johnny Norfolk November 7, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    Unless she can go to one of the best in Britain I would not recomend unless she wants a degree in Lady Gaga as one college is offereing. It has all been dumbed down so no one can fail. The quantity of people going has made a massive reduction in quality. we now have to test all graduates on basic skils that we never had to before. The position of the first french uni on this list is only 33. But it is not the whole story. If she doe come she needs to pick with great care believe me.

  3. Boris November 7, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Thanks for your input Jon and Johnny, as always nothing is straightforward. So it looks like the plan is, if she can get into a ‘good’ UK university that’s a good option otherwise best stick with France. She applied to Exeter, I thought they were quite good but they’re not on your list Johnny. looks like more research is needed!
    ps I asked Mrs B what list she had been using, since we’ve always been against the ‘university at any cost’ idea – apparently they’ve been using the guardian ranking table which seems to use a decent mix of factors for judging quality of UK universities

  4. Chris November 7, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    My wife (French) and I (British) have been having this debate as well. OK, we’re quite a few years off the actual decision, but we’re putting money away now to be in a position to be able to send the kids to a UK university if we (and they) decide that’s the best way to go. Lots of parameters here. what subject? Law and medicine related we’d keep them in France (cheaper, and assumes they’d want to stay in France afterwards). For social sciences, it would be a UK university (preferabl). The drop-out rate at French unis is far too high, and the teaching poorer (in our humble opinion – though we both have experience of both). A science/technical degree would probably lead us to try and get them into a ‘grandes écoles’, who have a damn fine reputation. I certainly wouldn’t want them to come out with a ‘Mickey Mouse’ (aka Lady Gaga) degree. I went to Exeter, and wouldn’t go back (poor teaching and facilities – the library was just about empty).

    And you must also consider what the child/adult actually wants. Maybe they want to be far from mum and dad, but being on the other side of the channel means no quick nips home for the odd weekend of pampering/clothes being washed. Though, depending on where you are in France, the University of Kent is excellent (I’ve done a lot of business with them) and only half an hour from the channel tunnel. Best of both worlds! But avoid at all costs the ex-polys, and stick to ‘proper’ UK universities, it definitely counts with job hunting. I hired someone in France who’d been to the Uni of Durham.

  5. Johnny Norfolk November 7, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    Boris its the ” Guardian” attitudes that have caused the problems. They have a different agenda than pure education as I know it.

  6. Jacqui U November 8, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Our experiences with our eldest daughter (LL) who is now in her second year at Uni, but it might be of some help!

    She applied to both UK and French Unis, and then weighed up the pros and cons.

    The actual subject chosen would have an important relevance to the choice of country – LL wanted to do maths and our ‘local’ uni at Montpellier has a very good world-wide reputation for maths (but not so for non-science subjects).
    So that made it a ‘valid’ choice for her alongside Cambridge, Royal Holloway, UCL, + (can’t remember the others?!) in the UK.

    We did have delays in getting the student report from her lycee in time for the UK UCCA deadlines even though we had started pestering for it in the Dec/Jan before – they missed the Cambridge deadline totally and were only just supplied in time for the other Unis!

    The UK Unis were VERY interested in persuading her to choose them – they tried everything they could think of, and were fully clued up on the ‘value’ of her bac (offers were all around 11/20 for her BacS, with 12/20 in her specialité Maths).

    LL came to France at 12 years old, so her written English was already very good/established. So less of a need to get her English up to speed by going back to the UK for Uni (this would be the opposite for our youngest who came here at age 6 and is French in all but nationality!).
    The students have to have quite a high level of English her because later modules will be taught by lecturers from around the world in English. So in her second year, there are English modules which LL sees as ‘easy’ points towards her final degree! She was tested by the tutor at the beginning to check she is up to the required level of English (!), and then told not to bother attending the lessons, just to turn up for the exams.

    LL has found there is just as much extra-curricular activities available at Montpellier (+ heavily subsidised sports club subscription) – eg she is doing exercise classes, French boxing, samba, this term.
    But note she does these all during the week – unlike in the UK, many students DO go home at the weekend if they are ‘local’. But about half are not local and stay put.

    Longterm, she envisages her best bet for employment is in a UK/American corporation with French offices – were her fluency in French would stand-out, and her research has shown that they would be happy with her French degree.
    She found that in French corporations, she would not stand out particularly with fluency in English (+ German).

    LL loves her lifestyle in France and is aware that UNI life in the UK is very different than her life in Montpellier (+ she can judge this because her cousins and best friend since the age of 4 are at Uni in the UK and LL knows first hand what its like there!).
    She felt that the level of ‘drinking to get blotto’ was something not on her day to day wish list (if that makes sense?!). In Montpellier they go clubbing approx once a fortnight and it is all much more organised, fun and safer she feels.

    However LL accepts that they have to work far harder here than her friend in the UK does which p*sses her off! LL has lectures from 8am most weekdays and usually finishes at 18:00, and even 20:00 2 evenings a week!! She has tests each and every term – and you have to do well enough to be allowed to go on.
    In reality LL recognises that this is good for her because she has a tendancy to only work hard if it is for an actual exam…..

    I do not see any major differences between how the Maths courses are taught here at Uni in France than they were when I did this subject 30(!) years ago in London. However, maybe nowadays they lecture differently in the UK….

    Here, LL pays 260€ per annum tuition fees, gets a bourse/grant of 40004€ pa and will get part of her rent paid for by CAF when she gets around to completing the forms…..

    In the UK she estimated that she would come out with a debt of approx £40,000 and it was not easy to find out exactly what bourses she would have been eligable for at each UK Uni – they all said she would get ‘lots of monetary help’ but nothing could be confirmed before acceptance of a place.

    Reasons she chose France:
    1. To be honest, LL was most put off by the level of debt she would end up with in the UK. She could not get her head around ‘owing’ £40,000!!
    2. LL was honest with herself, and realised that she was unsure if she could fit back into the level of partying/drinking that her friends/cousins in the UK were enjoying at Uni.
    3. She felt it was the best option given her future career plans.
    4. She liked the idea that she could pop home easily if she felt the need – early on it was weekly, now it is approx monthly. I think her teenage years in rural France have left her less ‘street wise’ maybe than her counterparts in the UK.

    As I say, just our experiences so far!

  7. Debby November 9, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    My daughter has just started her first year of medecine at Brest University and I’m very pleased to have a “bourse” of 4000 euros per year which covers more or less all her living expenses. There is a huge drop out rate especially in medecine but the thought of a young person having a huge loan at the end of their University years in UK is too depressing.

  8. Boris November 9, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Thanks for the comments, very useful indeed. That’s a great detailed story thanks Jacqui!
    Re finances, I understand that bourses are means tested in France, though I haven’t looked at the limits yet, and Mrs B tells me that if a child claims help from CAF with rent they no longer count as a deduction (a ‘part’ in French tax terminology) on their parents tax return, both of which affect the sums to be done.
    Incidentally she had her first ‘offer’ this morning (Kent) who said she needs a 13, so quite realistic. French applications don’t go in for a while yet.
    Our challenges with a second daughter (better at French, less strong in English) are similar, but three years away yet – hopefully at that stage you will also have experiences to share Jacqui…
    (Jacqui, you mentioned a bourse of 40004 – I’m guessing you meant 4000!)

  9. Jacqui U November 10, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Sorry – yes, I miss keyed the 4000€ !

    You are right: the bourse was means-tested on our income, whereas the CAF for rent does require LL to be NOT declared as a ‘part’ on a french tax return. This made no difference to our tax liability in France because we never reach the threshold to pay tax here anyway. For others, this might be relevant though.

    Also, having been granted a bourse, they also paid her tuition fees (260€ pa) and her health service contributions.

    The means testing threw up a quirk though, which was dealt with in a practical manner by the French powers that be.
    We declare all our income in France (on a French tax return) approx as follows:
    1. Revenu Brut Global = small amount of income earned in France.
    2. Revenu Mondial = (1) + my husband’s UK police pension.
    Obviously (2) is a lot higher than (1), but the means testing uses your Revenu Brut Global to decide if you qualify for a bourse.
    The authorities were confused how we could ‘live’ on such a small (1) so we explained and agreed with them that it was only fair that they actually used the figure (2) although the form you complete (online and/or on paper) specifically asks for (1) which hadconfused us.
    We were very suprised to actually qualify for a UNI bourse since our UK income is not bad and we never qualified for a school bourse, but the UNI bourses have very generous income limits.

    Well done to you daughter on her offer(s)!

  10. Jacqui U November 10, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    Forgot to mention that you can easily find out if your child would qualify for a bourse:
    1. Go to the internet site for CROUS of the city/town they are thinking of going to university at (eg for us CROUS de Montpellier).
    2. Go to the relevant section (think it is called ‘calculator’ or something similar).
    3. Input your revenue figure for the appropriate tax year, the number of kilometres between your home and the UNI and the number of other children in your household.

    It will then tell you what level of bourse you qualify for.
    For taxyear 2009 we are kicking ourselves. If I had worked a little bit less in France, we would have qualified for the same level of bourse (4000€) whereas we have just passed into the next income level and LL will only get 2000€ next Uni year. But that is life!
    We have found that the CROUS subsidised accomodation at UNI is very good here, which is another plus about getting a bourse, however small.

  11. Maggie C November 11, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    If you live in France and your kids have been brought up as French kids as mine have for the last 15 years why even think of sending them to the UK?? They feel French, they think French and despite being bilingual have done the majority of their schooling in France. My son went to Ireland “en stage” during his final year and was offered a full time job at the end (with a French company). He is now with an international company where he uses his languages but never regrets being “French”. I suppose we may be the exceptions though – we came to France not to mix with Brits but because we wanted to integrate!!

  12. Johnny Norfolk November 12, 2010 at 9:26 am

    British university demos are catching up with the French as well so its even more to think about.

    PS I think Maggie C is spot on.

  13. Jacqui U November 19, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Maggie, I think you have mis-interpreted our discussions above.
    We are certainly not ‘sending’ our children back to the UK for their university education.
    My daughter, rightly, looked at ALL the options available to her and this included not only French but also UK and indeed Dutch university courses and establishments.
    She selected based on a variety of criteria, not least what career and potential employer she envisaged in her future.
    Our bilingual children have the advantage that their potential horizens are wider due to their ability to not only speak multi languages but also because they have grown up without feeling they are restricted to only one country by default, be it their country of birth (England) or where they have grown up (France).
    My husband & I were very proud that our daughter LL thought through ALL her choices, from very practical angles (she certainly wants the best job & career at the end of her studies that she can get!) as well as her personal feelings as to the different lifestyles to be experienced in the different countries.
    Like you we live in France, fully integrated into the local community, with no other British anywhere close by.
    That does not mean however that our children should restrict their choices to just the country we decided to bring them to at a young age.
    They both feel themselves totally French rather than British. However, knowing that true fluency (both written & oral) in French was certain because they would be schooled throughout in France, we have always worked hard to ensure that their English (specifically written) is as fluent as it would have been if they had stayed in Britain.
    Gaining total fluency in a second language whilst ‘losing’ fluency in your original, seemed to us foolish.

  14. Boris November 21, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Jacqui, many apologies for the delay approving your comment – I have no idea why but your comments often seem to end up in the ‘spam’ folder for no apparent reason.
    The situation you describe is exactly the same with our family (except our daughters probably wouldn’t declare themselves to be French) and our goals very similar – expanding their choices rather than trying to impose ‘Frenchness’ on them at the cost of losing ‘Englishness’.

  15. Liquorice August 2, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Hey, for the academic excellence, have you ever thought of the French classes préparatoires ?

  16. Boris August 2, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Nice idea but I am not sure that our daughters fall in the category of ‘academic excellence’!

  17. Ellie September 18, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    I realise that this comment is rather late, but better late then never? Personally, I would encourage her to go to university wherever she plans to live/work when she’s older. It saves the enormous hassle of explaining to employers what her degree really means.

  18. Boris September 18, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    Yes, she has just started year 2 at Lyon. I would think UK employers would be quite happy seeing a decent French degree – but I’m only guessing of course…

  19. theBigM January 17, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Before the fees were introduced I would have said the UK everytime for university. I did a degree in French and spent an academic year at the University of Caen and was pretty unimpressed with what I found. The classes were large and formal with little interaction with the lecturer, there were NO social facilities (no café, bar, no sports or social clubs, etc.) and next to no sporting facilities.
    I stayed in halls of residence and the “kitchen facilities” consisted of two hot plates! All in all very poor. University in France just seemed like an extension of college and students seemed to mix very little.
    I think your logic is right though, getting in French degree will stand her in good stead, as this will give her a better chance of employment in both the UK and France). Having worked in France, there is no doubt that the French are much less open and much more protective of their jobs than in the UK. Considering that many French people seem to have to go to the UK or abroad for employment anyway, this seems like a good decision.

  20. Boris January 23, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Thanks for your comments, they are pretty much in line with our (daughter’s) own experiences, and others we hear of, although she has her own tiny apartment rather than a place in a hall of residence. Certainly it’s a very different experience to how I remember UK university.
    A lot of her friends still go home every weekend, which doesn’t do much for social life.
    ps sorry for the delay approving the comment, it got sent to ‘spam’ which I don’t check very often

  21. Sam June 24, 2013 at 10:34 am

    The UK with any shadow of a doubt. French universities are absolutely awful. The lecturers spend little time with the students, the public univsertied are crowded and underfunded, the choice of subject poor and the cities in France are dull for young students. I wouldn’t send my child to French university if you paid me!!! Awful!!! Mind you me and my French wife both heavily dislike living in France anyway!!!

  22. Boris July 5, 2013 at 7:13 am

    Doesn’t sound like France is quite the place for you and your children, Sam!
    I agree to some extent with much of what you say about French universities, certainly regarding social life for the students, although I am not so sure whether the overall education provided is not at least as good as UK universities, despite the shortcomings. Less social life = more studying perhaps?