Best universities in France 2018

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

September 5 2017
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 2018, 31 French institutions are counted among the top universities in the world.

The ranking includes nine 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 four spots, but institutions in Lyon, Marseilles, Grenoble and Bordeaux 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 fifth position.

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Top 5 universities in France

1. Paris Sciences et Lettres - PSL Research University Paris

Paris Sciences et Lettres - PSL Research University Paris is formed 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 ObservatoryChimie 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, University College London, Peking University and National Taiwan University

A total of 22 Nobel prizes have been awarded to researchers from the university across physics, chemistry, literature, physiology and medicine and economics.

2. 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 small Parisian suburb of Palaiseau, just over 10 miles from the centre of Paris.

Despite the small intake each year, 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 broad range of topics and specialisms.

In addition to six different topics within science and engineering, 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 then an oral examination.

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

3. Pierre and Marie Curie University

Like Paris-Sud University also in the top five, Pierre and Marie Curie University (UPMC) was established after the division of the University of Paris in 1970.

It is the largest scientific and medical complex in the country, with about 30,000 full-time students around the university’s Jussieu campus in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

The university has eight main teaching hospitals and is also well known for excellence in mathematics.

A number of affiliates of the university have won Nobel prizes for physics, chemistry and medicine since Pierre Curie and Marie Curie won in 1903.

There are 120 different research laboratories across modelling and engineering; living earth and environment; energy, matter and the universe; and life and health. More than 5,000 researchers and professors work in these four divisions.

About 20 per cent of the students are international. In total, there are about 3,000 doctoral candidates across 16 doctoral schools.

4. Paris-Sud University

Another large university, Paris-Sud University has just under 30,000 students across its campuses in the southern Parisian suburbs.

The university, and particularly its Orsay Centre, is noted for its contributions to physics and chemistry research. It is home to some of the most elite laboratories in France, in research fields including nuclear physics, astrophysics, atomic physics, nanoscience and particle physics.

Two Nobel prizes and four Fields Medals have been awarded to affiliates of the university. A number of other leading academics and business people are graduates, including Bertrand Serlet, the former senior vice-president of software engineering at Apple.

There are about 4,800 international students at Paris-Sud University hailing from 125 different countries.

5. École Normale Supérieure de Lyon

École Normale Supérieure de Lyon is one of four Ècole Normale Superiéures in France and the only university in the top five located outside of Paris. 

The first ENS was founded after the French Revolution and has since produced minds such as Louis Pasteur, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone Weil. Building on the success of the original school, ENS Lyon was founded in 1880.

The majority of students are recruited from local preparatory schools but a proportion of students are admitted entry if they pass rigorous entrance exams. 

Top universities in France 2018

Click each institution to view its full World University Rankings 2018 results 

France Rank 2018 World University Rank 2018 University City
1 =72 Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris Paris
2 115 École Polytechnique Paris
3 =123 Pierre and Marie Curie University Paris
4 181 Paris-Sud University Paris
5 =182 École Normale Supérieure de Lyon Lyon
6 196 Paris-Sorbonne University – Paris 4 Paris
7 201–250 Paris Diderot University – Paris 7 Paris
=8 251–300 Aix-Marseille University Marseille
=8 251–300 École des Ponts ParisTech Paris
=10 301–350 University of Bordeaux Bordeaux
=10 301–350 Grenoble Alpes University Grenoble
=12 351–400 University of Côte d’Azur Nice
=12 351–400 Federal University of Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées Toulouse
=12 351–400 Montpellier University Montpellier
=12 351–400 University of Strasbourg Strasbourg
=12 351–400 Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines Versailles
=17 401–500 CentraleSupélec Various
=17 401–500 Claude Bernard University Lyon 1 Lyon
=17 401–500 University of Lille Lille
=17 401–500 Sciences Po Paris
=21 501–600 Blaise Pascal University Clermont-Ferrand
=21 501–600 Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté (UBFC) Besançon
=23 501–600 University of Lorraine Nancy
=23 501–600 University of Nantes Nantes
=23 501–600 Panthéon-Sorbonne University – Paris 1 Paris
=26 601–800 École Centrale de Lyon Lyon
=26 601–800 École Normale Supérieure de Cachan Cachan
=26 601–800 National Institute of Applied Sciences of Lyon (INSA Lyon) Lyon
=26 601–800 University of Technology of Compiègne Compiègne
=30 801–1000 University of Cergy-Pontoise Cergy-Pontoise
=30 801–1000 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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