The French higher education system is characterised by the coexistence of a plurality of institutions which share the dispensing of higher education. They belong to different legal categories, defined in the French Code of Education (book VII). Distinctions can be made between:
- Schools and institutes outside of universities
- Higher education institutions, French schools abroad and "grands établissements" (major institutions)
- "Communautés d’universités et établissements" (COMUE - Communities of Universities and Schools)
Universities are scientific, cultural and professional public institutions (E.P.S.C.P.) as defined by the 1984 Savary Law and in the tradition of the Faure Law (1968) which already defined the concept of the "scientific and cultural public institution".
Organised since 1984 into training and research units (U.F.R.), they also include internal institutions and schools that dispense technical and short-term training: these are instituts universitaires de technologie (IUT - technological university institutes) providing short higher education.
Since the beginning of the 2013-2014 academic year, the IUFMs have been replaced by the Écoles Supérieures du Professorat et de l’Éducation (ESPE - Higher Schools for Teaching and Education) to ensure the training of all teachers, pedagogical education advisers, as well as students who have decided to go into other education professions and those who wish to develop skills in the field of teaching, education and training. The ESPEs are parts of universities attached to one or several Public Institutions of a Scientific, Cultural and Professional Nature (EPSCP), to a Research and Higher Education Hub (PRES) or a future Community of Universities (COMUE).
Grands établissements publics (Major public institutions)
"Grands établissements" are higher education institutions mainly admitting on the basis of an entrance exam taken by students in “classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles” (CPGE -classes preparing for admission to Grandes Ecoles). They are governed by the provisions of chapter VII of the Education Code and their statutory decrees. The following fall under this category: Collège de France, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (CNAM), Ecole centrale des arts et manufactures (ECAM), Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Ecole nationale des Chartes (ENC), Ecole nationale supérieure d’arts et métiers (ENSAM), institut Polytechnique de Bordeaux (IPB), Ecole nationale supérieure des sciences de l’information et des bibliothèques (ENSSIB), Ecole pratique des hautes études (EPHE), Institut d’études politiques de Paris (IEP), Institut de physique du globe de Paris (IPG), Observatoire de Paris, Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO), Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (MNHN), Palais de la découverte, Institut national d’histoire de l’art (INHA), Université de technologie en sciences des organisations et de la décision de Paris-Dauphine, Ecole des hautes études en santé publique (EHESP), Institut polytechnique de Grenoble.
Higher schools and institutions outside universities
These schools and institutes outside of universities have an administrative board, assisted by a Scientific Council and a Council for Studies and Student Life. Universities of Technology, National Institutes of Applied Science and "Écoles Centrales" (outside of Paris) fall within this category.
Écoles Normales Supérieures, Grands Établissements and French schools abroad
The Grandes Écoles, which are characterised by a very selective admissions policy and the high level of training and qualifications dispensed.
"Classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles” (CPGE - classes preparing for admission to Grandes Écoles). The following fall under this category: l’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (IEP), l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), l’École nationale des Chartes (ENC), l’Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO), le Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (MNHN), le Palais de la découverte, l’Institut national d’histoire de l’art (INHA), l’Université de technologie en sciences des organisations et de la décision de Paris-Dauphine, l’École des hautes études en santé publique (EHESP), l’Institut polytechnique de Grenoble.
There are also institutions whose purpose is to carry out traditional tasks of sovereignty, placed under the supervision of various ministries, such as the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA - National Administration School) which depends on the French Prime Minister, or the École Polytechnique and the Special Military Academy of Saint-Cyr which depend on the Ministry of Defence.
French schools abroad (the French School in Athens, the French School in Rome, the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo and the Casa de Velásquez in Madrid) are in charge of carry out basic field research and research training.
Communautés d'universités et d'établissements (COMUE - Communities of Universities and Schools)
Since the planning law for research of the 18th of April 2006 and the 2013 ESR Law, higher education institutions can decide to pool together their activities and resources by creating "Communautés d’Universités et d'Etablissements" (COMUE - Communities of Universities and Schools), which replace the former "Pôles de recherche et d'Enseignement supérieur" (PRES - Higher Education Research Hubs). Their aim is to create a momentum between the different types of institution (universities, grandes écoles or research organisations) and propose a more consistent and legible research and training system.
27 COMUE currently exist in France, 7 of which were created on the 29th and the 30th of December 2014. The development of COMUEs is accompanied by the autonomy of universities. These two processes are currently redefining the map of universities in France.