Stella Hughes talks to British and French graduates about Entente Cordiale scholarships
DELPHINE Goldberg packed her bags and left Paris for London last week, not to start a one-year Entente Cordiale scholarship - she finished that this summer - but to begin working for a British company.
"I longed to study in London and could never have done so without the scholarship. I'd just passed a business diploma at L'Ecole Superieure des Sciences Economique et Commerciale and that cost Pounds 4,000 a year for three years. I wouldn't have got into further debt," she said.
Her year spent taking a masters in urban planning at the London School of Economics quickly led to job-hunting and a post as a strategic consultant in London.
Not all students on the scheme end up staying, but all acquire a new understanding of the host country and say they are keen to remain in touch through an Entente Cordiale network of former scholars and sponsors.
The Entente Cordiale exchange scheme, now into its second year, was one tangible outcome of the 1995 Franco-British summit and is funded by the private sector.
The scholars benefiting from an average Pounds 10,000 award a year mostly come from elite higher education institutions but few could have pursued their project without the funding.
Nicholas Berbigier, who took a "very expensive" course in economics and finance at LSE and found the Pounds 600 a month London living allowance "generous", said: "I'd been to L'Ecole Polytechnique and then L'Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et de L'Administration Economique, so after seven years' study I'd have had to find work if this hadn't come up." While Ms Goldberg found the cosmopolitan nature of LSE very positive, especially the contact with students from developing countries, Mr Berbigier said it was "a mixed blessing" as it meant meeting fewer British students.
Most French scholars emphasise the more flexible and personal approach to study fostered in British institutions, while their British counterparts evoke the "rigidity" of the French system.
Richard Lean, who went from aeronautical engineering at Cambridge to "Sciences-Po", the elite political science school in Paris, said: "It was a shock for me. I thought the French were laid back but it's the absolute opposite. They are much more regimented and the staff-student relationship is reminiscent of school."
"There is an intellectual rigidity which makes French higher education difficult for the newcomer. You have to master the "plan'' and learn to take an intellectual carving knife and divide work into two halves," explained Christopher Rattray-Hall, a Glasgow law graduate who was having trouble funding a PhD at the Sorbonne before the scholarship allowed him to study full-time again for a year.
"It has fulfilled all my expectations. After going back to my PhD full-time and with the status of the Entente award, I have now got a PhD teaching contract," he said. There is strong competition for these contracts which give research students a monthly income in exchange for a few hours teaching.
The status of the scholarship can be particularly useful to students when the often prestigious institution they come from is unknown abroad.
"I had to spend my time explaining that it was all right not to be from the Sorbonne," said Ms Goldberg, "ESSEC knows it has a problem with its international profile and is working on it."
The Entente Cordiale scheme is run from the French embassy in London and the British Council in Paris. With French students aware of the need for fluent English and of the advantages of a British or United States diploma, interest is high.
"We have had no media coverage and get the response by sending material to the international relations departments of universities. Obviously the grandes ecoles are plugged in better for this kind of thing, but we are trying to get a good cross-section," said Emma Donaldson at the British Council.
At the Paris end, there is no problem getting good candidates but currency fluctuation has posed difficulties and only nine instead of 12 scholars are being sent to the UK this year because of the strength of the pound.
In London, media reports last June of the sluggish interest of British students were followed by more inquiries and applications than over the previous 12 months, according to French embassy official Edwige Girardin.
"It's less obvious for British students to go to France than the other way round and harder to target French speakers. But just imagine. We've received 200 applications so far and our information campaign hasn't even started yet," she said.
It is too soon to tell whether this increase in applications is also related to a change in conditions, with British students now able to apply at bachelors rather than at masters level.
The decision was a "sensitive" one, because having different rules for French and British applicants implies the level of French degrees is lower.
"We hesitated a lot, because at bachelor level, you can't go to a grande ecole. But after all, a very good first degree can get you straight into doctoral studies in Britain, so we'll submit one or two outstanding candidates to grandes ecoles," Mrs Girardin said.
"However, it's unlikely they will accept, it creates a precedent," she went on. "I only wish we had university league tables in France to guide us. We work on a case by case basis, finding the best for all scholars, who often know exactly where they should go."
The next step for the scheme's organisers is to create an Entente network of current and former scholars and sponsors. "A network does not have to be big to work. We have tiny, but highly influential networks in France," said Mr Berbigier.
In itself, the scholarship scheme can have an impact on far greater numbers of students than the lucky few who get the award, according to Mr Rattray-Hall.
"I think its effects could go far beyond the actual numbers of scholars. Its existence will encourage people to do things alone - and France has plenty of funding arrangements at the higher levels," he said.
Even when the Entente project does not lead in the expected direction, students are adamant the experience is worth it. "I wanted to become a diplomat but after Sciences-Po, I now think I'll join BA as an airline pilot," said Richard Lean, "but it will stay with me."