The landscape of higher education in France and its best universities

Updated: January 19, 2024 by Elie in About FranceArray  ▪  

best universities france statistics ranking

For decades, higher education institutions in France were among the best universities and have been on the academic ranking of world universities for years. Reaching the top positions in international rankings is important for universities to attract students, researchers, and funds. Below you’ll find a selection of the top-ranked universities in France.

In this article, we’ll talk about:

The French Education System

The higher education system in France is the third stage that comes after primary education and secondary education.

The first stage is primary education (école primaire) which consists of five years of study for children. Children start primary education approximately at the age of 6 just after 3 years of kindergarten (maternelle). They usually stay until the age of 11.

After the primary comes secondary education. The first phase is the collège which is a period of four years of study. And then comes the lycée (high school) which are the final three years of secondary education.

The higher education system in France

Universities have been one of the main pillars of the higher education system in France. Universities in France are expected to provide a free public service to all students.

There are several types of institutions that are part of the French higher education system. The main institutions are:

  1. Universities
  2. Grandes écoles
  3. Specialized schools

While a baccalaureate degree is the main admission requirement for universities in France (baccalauréat or bac in French), the grandes écoles have in place an entrance examination (concours). Students willing to take the entrance examination have followed a two-year specialized program: les classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles (C.P.G.E.), or just prépa.

At the same time, local universities compete against each other to catch the best students from one side and with grandes écoles and other international institutions on the other side. Therefore getting to the top of international ranking systems is what many universities strive to.

To learn more about the French higher education system, its history, and evolution you can read Higher-Education Systems and Institutions, France.

Key figures of the French higher education System

In this section, we’ll address the French higher education system and talk about students who are part of this system. We’ll detail the important numbers, the trends, and cover the essential information that characterizes education in France.

The early leavers statistics

Early leavers from the French higher education system are estimated to be 8.2% of those who are aged between 18 and 24 years. By sex, the percentage is 9.6 for males and 6.9 for females in France. The data reported in Graph 1 can be found in Key figures on Europe statistics illustrated along with other interesting numbers.

line graph percentage people left french higher education system
Graph 1 – The evolution of early leavers of the French higher education system in the percentage

How many students obtain a higher education degree in France?

The number of total graduates from universities in France was 795 961 in 2018 as reported by Eurostat. Among these graduates, 56% were females (447 332) and 44% were males (348 629) as illustrated in Graph 2. A similar trend is also observed in other European countries where female graduates are more than males.

graph bars number graduates france compared european countries
Graph 2 – Comparing the number of graduates in 2018 in many European countries, among them France.

How many students are in higher education in France?

In 2019-2020, 2.73 million students were enrolled in higher education institutions in France. It’s a 1.6%  increase over the previous year.

This recent study confirms that getting enrolled in a higher education program is gaining traction in France. In the span of 10 years, the share of students in France increased by 20% approximately: from 2.29 million students in 2010 to 2.73 million students in 2019-2020. This is the eleventh year of consecutive growth.

Public vs. Private Higher Education Sectors

Among the 2.73 million students who joined the French higher education system, the public university share is estimated to be about 1.63 million students. As for the private educational sector, the number of enrolled students accounts for 561 000.

International students in France: numbers and trends

International students express much enthusiasm and interest in studying in France and discovering its culture.

As for the international students in France, they are estimated to be around 13% of the total number of students.

Most of them join the French university and this accounts for 70% of the international students. The remaining percentage join other education institutions like business or engineering schools.

How many international students are in France?

In 2012-2013, international students represented 9.7% of all the students in the French higher education system. This accounts for 231 200 international students. This number increased to 385 000 in 2018-2019, or 13% in terms of percentage share.

As depicted in Graph 3, it’s a growing trend that shows the evolution in the number of French and international students in France. The data used in the following graphs can be found here.

graph lines evolution trend french international students from 2000 to 2019
Graph 3 – French and international student population growth in France

The following diagram summarizes the distribution of students in France in terms of local French students (87%) and international students (13%) as of 2018-2019.

diagram french and international students distribution france percentages
Diagram 1 – International students and the distribution of higher education students in France

Which countries have the most foreign students in France?

France is a popular destination for students from a number of countries and most of them have French as their second language (e.g., Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Lebanon).

According to this study, here is the list of the top 15 countries that have the most students in France:

  1. Morocco (Maroc)
  2. China (Chine)
  3. Algeria (Algérie)
  4. Italy (Italie)
  5. Tunisia (Tunisie)
  6. Sénégal (Senegal)
  7. Côte d’Ivoire (Côte d’Ivoire)
  8. Germany (Allemagne)
  9. Spain (Espagne)
  10. USA (Etats-Unis)
  11. Cameroun (Cameroun)
  12. Lebanon (Liban)
  13. India (Inde)
  14. Vietnam (Viêtnam)
  15. Brazil (Brésil)

The world map below explores the distribution of foreign students in France by country. The darker the color on the map, the higher the number of students in France from the corresponding country.

Plot 1

The distribution of international students by academy

The educational system in France is divided into multiple zones that are called academies. As shown in the table below, there isn’t a big difference in how international students chose their destinations.

Compared to other cities in France, Paris is the most popular destination for international students with a percentage of 15.6%.

Strasbourg ranks at the top just after Paris with a share of 14.3% of international students in 2018 followed by Nice with a share of 12.7%.

The average number of international students in France is 10.6%.

AcademyInternational students (%)
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Best universities in France

For those who want to join a higher education institution in France, there is one thing that they share in common. It is choosing the best university.

University ranking systems

An increasing number of rankings recognize the effort that every institution puts to offer the best education, attracting international students, as well as the best academics and researchers. Many of these worldwide ranking focus on many indicators such as teaching, research, knowledge transfer, and international outlook.

In this study, we consider three of the most well-known world university rankings:

Selection criteria

If any higher education institution is among the national top 10 universities in France in at least one ranking then it is added to this list.

These are major ranking systems for universities across the globe. Since we’re interested in the best university in France, we’ll filter out the results accordingly.

The list below summarizes the top universities in France, their information (name, website, etc.) as well as in which university ranking they appeared and in which position.

This is how we curated the following top 17 French higher education institutions in 2020.

The list of top universities in France

Université Paris-Saclay

logo universite paris saclay
ARWU 2020: World Rank 14 and National Rank 1
THE 2021: World Rank 178
QS 2021: World Rank 291 and National Rank 10

Université PSL (Paris Sciences et Lettres)

ARWU 2020: World Rank 36 and National Rank 2
THE 2021: World Rank 46
QS 2021: World Rank 52 and National Rank 1

Université Sorbonne

ARWU 2020: World Rank 39 and National Rank 3
THE 2021: World Rank 87
QS 2021: World Rank 83 and National Rank 3

Université de Paris

ARWU 2020: World Rank 65 and National Rank 4
THE 2021: World Rank 136
QS 2021: World Rank 275 and National Rank 8

Université Grenoble Alpes

ARWU 2020: World Rank 99 and National Rank 5
THE 2021: World Rank 351-400

Université d’Aix-Marseille

ARWU 2020: World Rank 101-150 and National Rank 6-7
THE 2021: World Rank 351-400

Université de Strasbourg

ARWU 2020: World Rank 101-150 and National Rank 6-7
THE 2021: World Rank 501-600

Université de Montpellier

ARWU 2020: World Rank 101-150 and National Rank 8
THE 2021: World Rank 301-350

Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1

ARWU 2020: World Rank 201-300 and National Rank 9-12
THE 2021: World Rank 501-600

École Polytechnique

THE 2021: World Rank 87
QS 2021: World Rank 68 and National Rank 2

École Normale Supérieure de Lyon

THE 2021: World Rank 251-300
QS 2021: World Rank 161 and National Rank 5

Paul Sabatier: Université Toulouse III

ARWU 2020: World Rank 201-300 and National Rank 9-12

Centrale Supélec

THE 2021: World Rank 501-600
QS 2021: World Rank 138 and National Rank 4

Ecole des Ponts ParisTech

THE 2021: World Rank 251-300
QS 2021: World Rank 242 and National Rank 6

Télécom Paris

THE 2021: World Rank 201-250

Sciences Po Paris

QS 2021: World Rank 242 and National Rank 6

Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

QS 2021: World Rank 287 and National Rank 9

Ready to study in France?

Many international students from across the planet look forward to benefiting from a well-established higher education system in France. Every year, the French universities are listed among the best universities in the world.

Such recognition is proof of continued excellence and, as an international student, it’s always a good idea to learn French and master the French pronunciation!

Check the membership program to learn French online with Master Your French.

As a student or as a tourist, learning French can be very useful not only when studying in France but also when traveling to France.

In fact, besides its universities and its education system, France is a great place that also attracts tourists. Many come to visit France’s beautiful cities, museums, historical monuments, and much more.

And if you enjoy learning about history, you can check this list of French-speaking YouTube channels.

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This post is also available in Français.

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