Best universities in France 2017

Find the best universities in France through Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings data
May 18 2016

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 2016-2017, 27 French institutions are counted among the top universities in the world.

The ranking includes 10 institutions in Paris – making up more than a third of the best universities 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, Strasbourg, Toulouse, Marseilles and Bordeaux also feature in the top 10.

The best university in France is École Normale Supérieure, one of the country’s most elite institutions and part of the grandes écoles system that admits only high-achieving students, in contrast to France’s other public universities that are open to all who have a high school diploma.

Outside Paris, École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, also one of the grandes écoles, is in joint fifth position.


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Top 4 universities in France

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1. École Normale Supérieure

Admissions to École Normale Supérieure (ENS) are extremely selective, comprising written and oral exams beyond the national baccalaureate. Candidates are expected to excel in research, science, arts, culture and humanities.

Graduates go on to secure top jobs in government, academia and culture. Among their number are 13 Nobel laureates, 10 Fields Medallists, several prime ministers and philosophers.

The roots of École Normale Supérieure can be traced back to the post-revolutionary National Convention in 1794 and the first course was designed to train secondary school teachers to ensure a consistent national education. But in its current form, École Normale Supérieure was founded in the 19th century and moved to its current site in 1847.

Only 200 students – known as normaliens – are recruited each year, half in science programmes and half in humanities. Students receive a monthly salary of about €1,300 (£1,114) in return for 10 years of service in the public sector on graduation.

International students are welcomed into postgraduate programmes and often receive a scholarship. Foreign students from European Union countries are also treated as civil servants in training, like their French counterparts.

ENS has a sister school in Italy – Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa – and up to half a cohort at each university can undertake an exchange each year. There are also research partnerships with elite institutions around the world, including the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, McGill University and Harvard University.

– The positives and negatives of studying in France at École Normale Supérieure

2. École Polytechnique

With a history stretching back as far as that of École Normale Supérieure, École Polytechnique is just as prestigious but 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.

– Read what it is like to study at École Polytechnique from a current student

3. Pierre and Marie Curie University

Like Paris-Sud University and Paris Diderot 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 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 4,800 international students at Paris-Sud University hailing from 125 different countries.


Best universities in France 2017

Click each institution to view its full World University Rankings 2016-2017 results

France rank 2017 World University rank 2017 University City
1 66 École Normale Supérieure Paris
2 =116 École Polytechnique Paris
3 =121 Pierre and Marie Curie University Paris
4 179 Paris-Sud University Paris
=5 201-250 CentraleSupélec Various
=5 201-250 École Normale Supérieure de Lyon Lyon
=5 201-250 Paris Descartes University Paris
=5 201-250 Paris Diderot University – Paris 7 Paris
9 251-300 Mines ParisTech Paris
=10 301-350 Aix-Marseille University Marseille
=10 301-350 University of Bordeaux Bordeaux
=10 301-350 Federal University of Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées Toulouse
=10 301-350 University of Strasbourg Strasbourg
=14 351-400 Claude Bernard University Lyon 1 Lyon
=14 351-400 École des Ponts ParisTech  Paris
=14 351-400 Montpellier University Montpellier
=14 351-400 Paris-Sorbonne University – Paris 4 Paris
=18 401-500 École Normale Supérieure de Cachan Cachan
=18 401-500 University of Nantes Nantes
=18 401-500 University of Nice Sophia Antipolis Nice
=18 401-500 Panthéon-Sorbonne University – Paris 1 Paris
=18 401-500 University of Lille Lille
=23 501-600 National Institute of Applied Sciences of Lyon (INSA Lyon) Lyon
=23 501-600 University of Rennes 1 Rennes
=23 501-600 Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté (UBFC) Besançon
26 601-800 École Centrale de Lyon Lyon
27 801+ University of Cergy-Pontoise Cergy

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Reader's comments (2)

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.

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