New English courses at grandes écoles aim to boost France’s offer

Vice-president for academic affairs at École Polytechnique says French-taught courses are ‘hard to sell’ to international students

October 16, 2016
École Polytechnique campus, France
Source: Alamy

One of France’s prestigious grandes écoles has announced the creation of its first programmes taught exclusively in English after one of its senior managers conceded its flagship programme was “hard to sell” to international students.

Frank Pacard, vice-president of academic affairs and research at the École Polytechnique, told Times Higher Education that while his institution’s bespoke Ingénieur polytechnicien, a four-year engineering course, had a good reputation globally, it is taught in French and therefore “doesn’t match the international schedule for studies”.

“The programme is designed in such a way that it is hard to ‘sell it’ to international students,” he said. “In the core programme, it’s very difficult to explain to foreign students what is inside the programme because it doesn’t match international standards, but also everything is taught in French.

“We realised that by keeping only this programme we miss a lot of talented international students. We need to adapt to the fact that there is a need [from students to travel]. Even in the US, more and more students want to have some education experience abroad.”

Professor Pacard also pointed to the complex system France employs in order for applicants to enter its prestigious grandes écoles as a reason for why international students were dissuaded from applying. Students must complete two intensive preparatory years (classes préparatoires or prépas) and an entrance exam.

“[Can you imagine going] to the US and asking someone in high school if they want to do a prépas for two years, all taught in French, and at the end of these two years you don’t have a degree, but eventually you’ll have to pass an extremely tough exam, [to get] a degree? It’s very hard to sell.”

The institution’s new degrees – five graduate degrees and its first bachelor’s programme – will not require a prépas and aim to offer international students high-level scientific training and education in innovation management to closely match the demands of the job market. 

The graduate courses span a range of subjects including training in electronics and communications, the environment, economics and big data. The bachelor’s degree is primarily focused on mathematics. All the programmes encapsulate multidisciplinary curricula – another characteristic of the Ingénieur polytechnicien – combining science, humanities, management and sports.

Professor Pacard said that the introduction of English-taught programmes was not aimed at trying to compete with similarly ranked global universities, but to give international students more options.

“We have to be realistic. We don’t have the same means and size [as] some of our international partners,” he said.

“But I think that from the experience we have with the engineering programme, all our students are extremely well trained, and when they go abroad to the top 10 universities [to study further], they are [welcomed].”

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Reader's comments (1)

Polytechnic, in my day in the UK, was a technical college one rung down from University. Hence when I was a language teacher in France, I had a student learning Frenh from Hatfield Polytechnic whom I encouraged, within Alcatel, a company full of "Polytechniciens" where he was interning, to present himself as "Je suis JR, expert informatique, Polytechnique". Success guaranteed, as for the French, going to Polytechnic is the ultimate achievement.