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The unique charm of a tiny French university for a British student

Priced out of postgraduate study in the UK, a British student at ENS de Lyon reflects on the unfamiliar experience of attending a tiny university

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  • Study abroad
January 27 2016


My first experience of the ENS Lyon was as an Erasmus student. I’d opted for Lyon over Paris in a bid to sidestep some of the inevitable year-abroad clichés. Neither the city nor the university disappointed; I left Lyon to finish my degree, wishing that I could stay.

Priced out of postgraduate study in the UK, the decision to return to the ENS was a simple one, particularly given the university’s pedigree and its focus on research-based learning. That it’s a relatively small institution was also part of its appeal, since in terms of both academia and social life there is a level of familiarity that appears to facilitate expression and creativity.

Although any student abroad takes time to find their feet, I found integration into the ENS community to be fairly straightforward – as straightforward, at least, as integration into any francophone community can be. Perhaps the best indication of the nature of the relationship I was able to establish came in my final year when, with dissertation deadlines and finals looming, I managed to visit friends on several occasions.

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Students here are used to spending significant periods of time in cities around the world. The consolidation of their experiences and the university’s desire to foster links on an international scale mean that many resources are at the disposal of foreign students looking to study at the ENS Lyon, as well as being available to its own students looking to depart.

For the average British student, the sight of the same faces in classes, at social events and in various societies might be an unfamiliar one. Indeed, the experience of a small university, particularly abroad, can be somewhat claustrophobic in the initial stages. In time, however, it becomes clear that it is this closeness that gives the ENS Lyon its unique charm. What is more, its setting in Lyon, a city humming with life, helps to put feelings of claustrophobia into perspective.

The size of the institution foregrounds community spirit and tight-knit societies, both of which seem vital to sustaining the variety of activities on offer. Moreover, it creates an atmosphere of trust between the administration and the students that I have rarely observed in British universities, and which allows the latter to obtain actual life-skills through their experiences of running associations such as the students’ union.

Staff at the ENS Lyon are a key factor in the institution’s appeal to students at home and abroad. Professors and researchers tend to encourage participation in class and are generally willing to provide advice or assistance when approached in this capacity.

Administrative staff, too, are very approachable. Even when it comes to circumnavigating the pitfalls of bureaucracy, which are numerous, they work hard to help students in any way they can.

Read more: The best small universities in the world  

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