Today, public universities are by far the main force in higher education and research in France. They enroll 1,657,000 students (almost two-thirds of the total in in the French higher education system) and employ 92,000 instructors. Over the past 800 years, the French university as an institution has evolved considerably.
From the Middle Ages to the French Revolution
The first French universities were created in the 13th century. First in Paris, then in Toulouse and Montpellier. Originally, the University of Paris included 4 faculties: theology, canon law, medicine, and art. Since the Middle Ages, universities have awarded the diplomas that we still know today as the Baccalaureate, the Licence, the Maîtrise and the Doctorat, although each university had its own way of operating.
Gradually, 22 universities were created until the French Revolution, when they were all abolished.
With Napoleon, the universities tend towards their current form
In 1808, Napoleon created State-dependent faculties (4 faculties of theology, 6 faculties of medicine, 12 faculties of law and 27 faculties of science and literature). This was the beginning of the present-day public university system. At that time, these institutions mainly provided professional training.
Condemned under the Restoration (1814-1830), universities were reborn under the Third Republic. But they were empty shells, with very limited areas of intervention, unlike the faculties.
At that time, the Grandes Écoles developed, whose vocation was to train state executives. The first ones appeared in the 18th century. The Napoleonic system led to the creation of prestigious schools, such as the École Polytechnique and the École Normale Supérieure. These specialized schools began to prosper under the Restoration.
The national symposium on research and scientific education held in Caen in 1956 led to measures designed to promote scientific studies in higher education, the construction of universities and laboratories, and the creation of a national research fund. The Caen symposium in 1966 led to the institutionalization of educational science at the University.
New momentum under the Faure Law
After the events of May 1968, the Faure Law gave universities their distinct identities. They are no longer federations of faculties but establishments whose faculties, called Unités de formation et de recherche (UFR) since the Savary law of 1984, are component entities without legal personality. These universities are administered by elected councils. Several universities can exist within the same academy if they are multidisciplinary. In the Paris area, for example, more than ten universities were created at that time.
Professionalization of curricula and programmatic structuring of research
The end of the 20th century was essentially marked by an unprecedented increase in student enrollment numbers, originating from increasingly varied social backgrounds. In response to this phenomenon, new universities were created, first with the implementation of the Faure Law in the early 1970s, then in the early 1990s with the Université 2000 plan.
During this period, university curricula became increasingly focused on professionalization. Universities began discerning diplomas for technical fields. New professional diplomas were developed as Licences professionnels and Masters professionnels, using curricular content agreed upon with the professional branches concerned. While France boasts a number of specialized engineering schools, one third of engineers, for example, are now obtain professional degrees from universities.
Since 1984, universities have also seen lifelong learning included among their main missions. Academic recognition of professional experience is gradually taking shape.
Another significant phenomenon of this period was the programmatic structuring of university research. In the 1990s, mixed research units appeared, organized under the terms of multi-annual contracts (now 5 years) involving the State, universities and public research organizations whose perimeter is constantly expanding. These Unités mixtes de recherche (UMR) coexist with the universities’ own research units. In 2004, a major meeting was held, les Assises nationales de recherche, in Grenoble. Its work led to the creation in 2005 of a national research agency, Agence nationale de la recherche (ANR). In 2006, of the new clusters dedicated to research and higher education appeared, called Pôles de recherche et d’enseignement supérieur (PRES). University actors therefore found themselves playing a primary role in academic research. Their activities are coordinated with those of the organizations within the Alliances1 created in 2009 and 2010. This was also the time when the principle of independent evaluation took shape with the creation of a new national evaluation agency, known as the Agence d’évaluation de la recherche et de l’enseignement supérieur (AERES), and then with the creation of a high council dedicated to evaluation, known as the Haut Conseil de l’évaluation de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche (HCERES).
In the early 2000s, universities also strengthened their international activity and included their curricula in the Bologna process initiated at the Sorbonne and based on the recognition of three levels of diplomas: the bachelor’s degree (Licence), the master’s degree (Master) and doctorate (Doctorat), in order to promote the mobility of students and young researchers coming to France or moving beyond its borders.
University autonomy, a turning point in governance
In 2007, the Loi relative aux Liberté et responsabilité des universités gave universities a high degree of autonomy, notably by transferring to them the complete management of their budget and sometimes of their assets. However, the universities remain closely controlled by the State, which approves academic degree programs and research units. Through the Rector, who is the university chancellor, the State also retains a certain amount of control over the budget, including the capacity to step in for university presidents when universities fail in their missions or face recurrent deficits.
University clusters to strengthen the synergy between actors
In 2013, the Loi pour l’Enseignement supérieur et la Recherche goes further to develop university autonomy. The law abolishes the a priori accreditation of each course and replaces it with much broader accreditations that allow universities to set up courses that will be evaluated a posteriori by an independent authority. The other notable change in the law is the obligation for universities in the same academy2 to group together either by merging, or by associating the establishments concerned with one of the universities, which then plays the role of leader, or within a Community of Universities and Establishments (ComUE), which replaced the PRES. This movement also concerns the public Grandes Écoles. Private structures are encouraged to join in, as the objective is to continue bringing together the different structures of higher education. Whatever form is chosen, it is the grouping that becomes the government’s main interlocutor, particularly in the negotiation of five-year site contracts in which the local authorities (particularly the regions and cities) are involved.
From 2009 onwards, universities have merged at their own initiative, enabling them to gain international visibility, to coordinate their course offerings, to harmonize student services, and to carry out research capable of raising the institution to remarkable levels in international rankings.
However, the overlapping structures involved in the creation of COMUEs has led to a preference for more flexible forms of coordination.
Reform of access to the first cycle to improve the orientation of future students
In 2018, the Loi relative à l’orientation et la réussite des étudiants (ORE) changed the process for student enrollment in university . In connection with the reform of the Baccalaureate, a new enrollment platform was created, called “Parcoursup”. This new platform facilitates the assignment of Baccalaureate holders to a university.
A decree relating to the Licence, issued in application of this law, sets up new measures such as educational success contracts, the organization of adapted courses, and skill blocks.
Also noteworthy: the December 2018 ordinances contribute to modifying the landscape of French higher education by opening the door to experimental public establishments, and to new forms of rapprochement between specialized schools and universities.
In December 2020, the Loi de programmation de la recherche for the years 2021 to 2030 gives French research additional financial leeway and allows real progress to be made towards making professions more attractive and improving the careers of young researchers. It thus constitutes a starting point for strengthening international recognition of French research.
Efforts toward international recognition also led to the creation, in 2018, of forty-one European Alliances aiming to offer new learning, research and innovation opportunities to the whole university community. The year 2022 marked a new phase with the extension of existing alliances and a new target of 60 European Universities by 2025.
Project-based financing, supported by the General Secretariat for Investment and now included in the France 2030 plan, has opened up new avenues for developing new university courses aimed at making tomorrow’s professions more legible and attractive. In a stabilized university landscape, fundamental questions are once again being asked with respect to major issues where national sovereignty is at stake.
(1) France has five Alliances in the fields of life sciences and health, energy, information sciences and technologies, environment, and social and human sciences. France Universités is a member of each of these Alliances and chairs two of them.
(2) But the grouping may involve several neighboring academies.