The French higher education system

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Last updated: 06-03-2017

In order to help people from foreign universities (international exchange coordinators, academic staff and students), it seems appropriate to provide a brief description of the French higher education system

Higher education in France is a two-component system consisting of universities and Grandes Écoles.

The latter mainly specialise in Science and Business Management. The system has been directly inherited from the political and economic history of the country. All students who wish to enter university in France are required to pass the baccalauréat (final examinations at the end of secondary education in France, at which time a student is normally 18 years old). Those students who would like to enter one of the Grande Écoles must in addition pass a highly selective, competitive entrance examination known as the concours. To this end, the majority of them spend their first two university years in preparatory classes known as Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles, or CPGE for short, which prepare them for the concours exams. In the CPGE, the future students of the Grandes Écoles take intensive courses (a heavy timetable of small classes, individual tutorials and tests) mainly in mathematics, physics, chemistry and natural sciences (biology, geology).

Admission to the CPGE is a national process and only 20% of applicants are successful. The time spent studying in the preparatory classes corresponds to 120 ECTS credits (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System).


Admission to the ENSG Ingénieur degree programme is made through different selection procedures, and only the top 20 to 40% of candidates are accepted at ENSG. An ENSG “Ingénieur” can therefore be considered as being among the top 10% Geoscience students in France.


Students at the Grandes Écoles follow a three-year study programme (equivalent to 180 ECTS credits). ENSG is one of the Ecoles Nationales Supérieures d'Ingénieur - the Grandes Écoles that award degrees in Engineering and Applied Sciences.

These schools place great emphasis on economics, business, management and foreign language training, industry work-placements, and research-based training.

Graduates of the Ecoles Nationales Supérieures d'Ingénieur are conferred the title of Ingénieur. The award of this degree is authorized and regulated, according to precise criteria and guidelines, by the Commission des Titres d’Ingénieur, an independent body which was established by French law in 1934.

Two intermediate-level degrees are conferred on student-engineers at ENSG: the Bachelor en sciences de l’ingénieur at the end of Semester 6 (180 ECTS and equivalent to European level B) and the Gradué en ingénierie at the end of Semester 8.


The academic programme at ENSG is organised into semesters worth 30 ECTS each, totalling 180 ECTS for the complete course. Added to the 120 ECTS obtained prior to entry to ENSG, the diplôme d'Ingénieur ENSG therefore corresponds to 300 ECTS, i.e. a Masters degree.

An Ingénieur of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Géologie is therefore someone who has obtained the national diplôme d'Ingénieur, which corresponds to 5 years of study at higher education level. They have completed an introduction into, and by, research. For this reason, the university grade of “Master” is now conferred on all French “Ingénieurs”. This distinction is stated on the degree certificate.


The Masters degree allows students to begin doctoral-level studies (PhD). It is therefore remarkable to note that, though they receive only 5.4% of the higher education students in France, the grandes écoles and their associated laboratories produce 20% of the country’s doctoral theses. 

Grade conversions

The ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System) conversion scale, which is recommended for use in the European Union: 

Mark /20 Corresponding ECTS Grade
16 - 20 A: Excellent – Outstanding results with only minor shortcomings
15 - <16 B: Very Good – Above average results despite some shortcomings
14 - <15 C: Good – Good results in general but with some notable deficiencies
13 - <14 D: Satisfactory – Satisfactory results but containing significant deficiencies
12 - <13 E: Pass – The results fulfil the minimum criteria
4 - <12 FX: Insufficient – Further work is required for the award of credit
0 - <4

F: Insufficient – Considerable further work is required

Test comparison with the GPA (Grade Point Average) system, widely used in North America:

Mark /20 Corresponding GPA
< 17 4
15 - 17 3.7
14 - 15 3.5
13 - 14 3.2
12 - 13 3
10 - 12 2.7
8 - 10 2.5
4 - 8 2.2
< 4 2