Engineering a balanced exchange

April 24, 1998


Advanced French and British engineering education has never meshed properly - until now.

Britain's three-year degree programmes have been viewed with suspicion in France, while Britain's engineering graduates have never been renowned for their linguistic abilities. It has been far easier for French students to slip into the British university system than for UK students to meet the specific demands of the grandes ecoles.

As a House of Lords committee has been hearing, the attraction of studying in English has created a worrying imbalance in the flow of students between the UK and the rest of the European Union.

Jean-Pierre Trotignon of the French embassy's science and technology department in London says: "It is very difficult to find English-speaking students confident enough in their French to study alongside French students. We offer the possibility of transition for these students."

The scheme to correct the imbalance, at least in mechanical engineering, starts later this year when 20 to 25 British engineering students will spend the first part of a year in France in Angers, south-west of Paris, adapting to French life and study. Angers is part of the Ecole National Superieure d'Arts et Metiers, France's largest higher education institution specialising in engineering.

The institution is pioneer of the Plus un scheme devised by a consortium of 128 grandes ecoles supported by the French ministry of education, research and technology in collaboration with a number of UK universities.

The idea is to remove the hurdles to coordinating the nationally distinct paths of study. As well as language, these include the varying organisation of the academic year, making exchanges lasting less than 12 months difficult to organise; the differing approaches to training; and, above all, the differing paths to chartered engineer status. In France chartered engineer status is awarded by the grande ecole on successful completion of five years in higher education, while in Britain it is given to MEng holders after several years' work in industry.

Professor Trotignon added: "We want to set up a framework of cooperation with clear rules to allow people to get a double degree under regular conditions."

The scheme is aimed at mechanical engineering students who will have completed their BSc or BEng this summer and are aiming at an MEng with an international dimension. Fluency in French is not essential. September to December will be spent on a tailor-made programme developed with British universities and institutions to ensure accreditation. It begins with two weeks' adaptation followed by a semester in which lectures are delivered in French.

After Christmas the students are dispersed either as trainees on placements to French companies or to grandes ecoles where they will carry out a six to seven-week project supervised by a lecturer.

After this, the British students will join a French engineering course at a grande ecole for the regular fourth semester, which leads to the award of a certificate.

After completing their MEng in the UK, students can, if their motivation is strong and scientific background good, return for a third year to receive a French degree.

In the other direction there is less of a problem. French grand ecole students simply join a taught MEng or similar course as an alternative to their third year in France and carry out project work with a British company before returning home for a semester with a European emphasis prior to gaining their French degree.

A number of major industrial companies are lending support and 12 UK and Irish universities are participating in the scheme, including Bristol, Cranfield, Leeds, Warwick and University College Dublin. The support can be at two levels: 2,000 euros (Pounds 1,310) a year allows a sponsor to support the project; 8,000 euros a year involves donors as partners able to support a student at the grande ecole or university of their choice.

Applications will be invited at the beginning of next month, with successful candidates told within a few weeks. Further information at

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