Best universities in France 2019

Find the best universities in France through Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings data

September 26 2018
Paris Eiffel Tower

If you’re hoping to study in France, you’ll want to know which universities are the best.

So what are the top French universities and colleges? According to Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2019, 34 French institutions are counted among the top universities in the world.

The ranking includes eight institutions in Paris – the most represented city in France – and other options scattered around the country.


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Universities in Paris take the top five spots, but institutions in Lyon, Marseilles, Grenoble and Toulouse also feature in the top 10.

The best university in France is Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris, a collegiate university formed of 25 research and higher education institutions in the Paris area and three national research institutions. 

Outside Paris, École Normale Supérieure de Lyon is in sixth position.


The student experience in France

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The positives and negatives of studying at a small university in Paris, France
The appeal of a "village atmosphere" on campus
The cost of studying at a university in France


Top 4 universities in France

1. Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris

Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris is made up of 25 higher education institutions and research centres in the Paris area. It was formed in April 2010 by five prominent French institutions: the École Normale Supérieure, the Collège de France, the Paris Observatory, Chimie ParisTech and ESPCI ParisTech.

The institutions under the umbrella of the university are a mixture of older institutions that were established during the Enlightenment period and new institutions. 

The university's main aim is to establish itself as one of the top research institutions in the world. The institution has also developed links with other top-ranking institutions around the world including the University of Cambridge, UCL, Peking University and National Taiwan University

A total of 26 Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry, literature, physiology and medicine and economics have been awarded to researchers from the university.

2. Sorbonne University

Sorbonne University is a public research university in Paris. It was established in 2018 through the merger of Paris-Sorbonne University, Pierre and Marie Curie University and a number of smaller institutions. 

The university has three faculties: humanities, science and medicine. Law is taught by Panthéon-Assas University (Paris 2).

Sorbonne has a number of campuses across Paris, as well as a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi. 

The university is home to eight notable scientific collections open to researchers. Some of the collections are also open to the public, such as the minerals, paleontology and zoology collections. 

3. École Polytechnique

École Polytechnique focuses specifically on science and technology. The motto of the school is “For the Homeland, Science and Glory”.

There are fewer than 3,000 students at the university, which is based in the suburb of Palaiseau, just over 10 miles from the centre of Paris.

Despite the small intake, about 30 per cent of the student body is international, with one Spanish student explaining that international students get special attention and preparatory programmes.

École Polytechnique offers an interdisciplinary approach, providing a curriculum that combines undergraduate teaching with graduate research across a range of disciplines.

In addition to six science and engineering subjects, undergraduates are also required to take a humanities subject and sports.

Undergraduate admission requires two years of preparation during high school before a week of written exams and an oral examination.

French nationals are obliged to do eight months of military service in their first year, since the university is officially run by the Ministry of Defence.

4. Paris Diderot University – Paris 7

Paris Diderot University adopted its current name in 1994 and was named after the 18th century French philosopher, art critic and writer Denis Diderot. 

The university is best known for teaching in science, especially in mathematics. This is reflected in the achievements of alumni, including two Nobel prize laureates, two Fields Medal winners, and two former French ministers of education. 

The central library is the largest university library in Paris.

There are many student associations, as well as a number of unusual sports clubs such as acrobatics, circus arts, French boxing and jazz gymnastics. 


Best universities in France 2019

Click each institution to view its full World University Rankings 2019 results.

France Rank 2019 WUR Rank 2019 University City/Town
1  41  Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris Paris
2  73  Sorbonne University Paris
3  108  École Polytechnique Paris
4  =194  Paris Diderot University – Paris 7 Paris
=5  201–250  École des Ponts ParisTech Paris
=5  201–250  École Normale Supérieure de Lyon Lyon
=5  201–250  Paris-Sud University Paris
=8  301–350  Aix-Marseille University Marseille
=8  301–350  Federal University of Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées Toulouse
=8  301–350  Grenoble Alpes University Grenoble
=8  301–350  Montpellier University Montpellier
=8  301–350  Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines Versailles
=13  351–400  University of Côte d’Azur NICE
=13  351–400  IMT Atlantique Brest
=15  401–500  University of Bordeaux Bordeaux
=15  401–500  Centrale Nantes Nantes
=15  401–500  CentraleSupélec Various
=15  401–500  Claude Bernard University Lyon 1 Lyon
=15  401–500  University of Lille Lille
=15  401–500  Sciences Po Paris
=15  401–500  University of Strasbourg Strasbourg
=22  501–600  Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté (UBFC) Besançon
=22  501–600  Panthéon-Sorbonne University – Paris 1 Paris
=24  601–800  University of Clermont Auvergne Clermont-Ferrand
=24  601–800  École Centrale de Lyon Lyon
=24  601–800  École Normale Supérieure de Cachan Cachan
=24  601–800  University of Lorraine Nancy
=24  601–800  University of Nantes Nantes
=24  601–800  National Institute of Applied Sciences of Lyon (INSA Lyon) Lyon
=24  601–800  University of Rennes 1 Rennes
=24  601–800  University of Technology of Compiègne Compiègne
=32  801–1000  University of Cergy-Pontoise Cergy-Pontoise
=32  801–1000  Normandy University Normandy
=32  801–1000  Paris Nanterre University Nanterre

Read more: Best universities in the world

Reader's comments (3)

I am dubious about the criteria. Grandes écoles are not universities and lack the research ethic that makes a university. They teach the 'right' way of thinking. Paris takes the cash that the rest of France does not get, but does that make them good. They lost the excellence finding for research because, well they were just not excellent. And would you really want to breathe the air of paris for a year? It is better to look at courses and not universities, that is where the innovation in research and teaching lies. There is a real France beyond the myth, and a student will probably be better there.
I am dubious about the criteria. Grandes écoles are not universities and lack the research ethic that makes a university. They teach the 'right' way of thinking. Paris takes the cash that the rest of France does not get, but does that make them good. They lost the excellence finding for research because, well they were just not excellent. And would you really want to breathe the air of paris for a year? It is better to look at courses and not universities, that is where the innovation in research and teaching lies. There is a real France beyond the myth, and a student will probably be better there.
None of the rankings (ARWU, THE, etc.) fit the French system and therefore it is utterly pointless to seek out a hierarchy of French establishments on any of these platforms. The French higher education system (and French social and political structures as a general rule) follows the Humboldt model and does not seek to make profit, but to educate its citizens (this starkly contrasts, for instance, with the Anglo-American model). French universities also publish in French (though more and more do so in English as well today), which gives them less visibility when faced with universities that will do their utmost to meet the criteria laid out in the above-mentioned rankings, especially as far as research and publishing is concerned. German universities face the same problem (also based on the Humboldt model), but no one would consider either France or Germany to be anything but leaders in many fields. By contrast, I have met and taught to far too many students from top British and American universities, and sadly the average student had a much lower academic level and general knowledge than the average French student and - most importantly - had not been taught the value of critical thinking, an approach which is the building block of French education. SYSTEM There are two main types of higher education institutions in France: universities and grandes écoles. Both offer the highest level of academic teaching and obtaining a Master's degree in either can only suggest you are both highly resilient and disciplined. After all, the French education system is famed for being harsh and unforgiving (not entirely true today), and with education being almost free, teachers feel no pressure to "help" you succeed as you did not pay £$€40,000 to study. It's basically all down to your personal commitment and investment and you succeed only if you are actually competent. 1) Grandes écoles are built on a normative approach to their fields of study and are highly selective at the entry-level (i.e. you should already fully adhere to... normative thinking since high school). It's a matter of choice, even though many French students and their parents fantasize about getting into one as they traditionally more prestigious in the subconscious mind and offer more professional opportunities (also less and less true today). There is essentially no real difference between studies in grandes écoles and universities today (professors often teach the same classes in both institutions), and that line is increasingly thinner - though much of political life in France is overshadowed by a clannish tendency to favor those from the same schools. This is also increasingly less true. If you do not have plans to stay in France or are not interested in having your best chances of becoming a civil servant, then there really is no sense in trying to get into a grande école - initially, they were made to uphold the French model, full stop. --> Universities are more liberal and there is no entry-level selection, though students get sifted out massively during the first year of most Bachelor degrees (the student body is typically halved), either because they realize the level is higher than they had expected, or because they switch to other courses. That is perhaps what pushes many students to favor grandes écoles (or private schools) as the thought of overcrowded classrooms can be deterring (understandably so). It essentially does not matter which university you pick in France, so pick your school based on other criteria such as location or specialization (some programmes are better in certain universities, and there is a silent ranking of universities with "reputable" ones being essentially a couple in and around Paris (Sorbonne, Diderot, Paris-Saclay...), or in larger French cities: the University of Strasbourg, University of Aix-Marseille, University of Grenoble, University of Toulouse...). Good luck!

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