01 - France - Historical overview

The history of higher education in France dates back to the 12th century, with the creation of the first universities. They were independent institutions with autonomous status and awarded significant privileges. They had the monopoly in the awarding of qualifications and educated those designed to exercise the highest civil and religious responsibilities in society.

During the Revolution (18th century), in order to educate the managing elite crucial to the Nation, the Convention created, by decree of 15 September 1793, the special grandes écoles: the central school of public works (which became one year later the école polytechnique), the arts and crafts conservatory, the school of oriental languages, the school of fine arts etc.

In the early 19th century (10 May 1806), Napoleon Ist, with the intention of controlling education, created the Imperial University, with a university council (advisory and jurisdictional body). This was a state university benefiting from an educational monopoly and integrated into all institutions. All the teachers had to be members of this university. In the cities, where the academies were installed (27 of them) and headed by a recteur, were the faculties, State organisations directly managed by the central administration, which appointed the deans. The Imperial University was abolished in 1850 by the Falloux law and became the Université de France. The University, a constituted body benefiting from a teaching monopoly, disappeared in 1854 following the division of France into 16 academic constituencies. It was replaced by Faculties, under the authority of recteurs, endowed with a number of powers. Faculty bodies took the name of University in 1896.

Under the 4th Republic (1946-1958), the university was not the governments’ main concern. The university – grandes écolesdualism remained important. On the initiative of industrialists, professors and other Lyon notables, the Ecole Centrale Lyonnaise pour l’Industrie et le Commerce was created in 1957.

In the sixties, the post-war "baby-boom", combined with the increased access of young people to secondary education (obligatory school age was increased to 16) and baccalauréat, resulted in a rise in the number of students.

1968 marked a turning point in the history of higher education. The May events resulted in an important reform which turned universities into genuinely independent and multi-disciplinary institutions: the framework law on higher education of 12 November 1968, also known as the Edgar Faure law, created a new type of institution, "public institutions of a scientific and cultural nature" (EPCSC). The former faculties disappeared and were replaced with education and research units (UER). The major principles implemented by this law were autonomy, the participation of all the players in the university communityand multidisciplinarity. Nevertheless, higher education remained divided into two separate blocks: grandes écoles, educating the nation’s senior executives and endowed with significant prerogatives, and universities, "UER federations".

The current organisation of higher education is ruled by the code of Educationwhich, while maintaining the major principles of the Faure law, defines objectives to regroup universities and grandes écoleswithin the same text and promote greater openness of these institutions to the outside world. It confirms the public institution status, now called public institution of a scientific, cultural and professional nature (EPSCP). More specifically, universities are composed of different elements: departments, laboratories and research centres.

The pivotal elements in the history of French higher education since the law of 26 January 1984, also known as Savary law, are as follows:

  • Implementation of the contractual policy linking the State and the institutions and providing independent higher education institutions with a new and viable content (ministerial circular of 24 March 1989);
  • Creation of European university centres in 1991, currently amounting to 11;
  • Construction of the European area for higher education and research, initiated in 1998 in the Sorbonne by 4 States (France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy), continued in Bologna in 1999, Prague in 2001, Berlin in 2003 and Bergen in 2005; 46 countries are currently involved in the process.
  • The "U3M" Plan (university of the third millennium) for 2000-2006, which outlined the major development guidelines for the higher education system within the framework of the State-region plan;
  • The implementation of the European qualification architecture since 2002, known as the LMD reform (licence-master’s degree-doctorate) ;
  • The Pact in favour of research, signed in 2006 and based on the programme law on research of 19 April 2006;
The development of the social policy in favour of students, reflected, among other things, in the sharp increase in the number of students benefiting from a grant (over 30% of the student population), the amount of which is from 1,355 Euros/year to 3,661 Euros/year.

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Date: 2009
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