The French are renowned for their bureaucracy and their excessive paperwork; whether you are signing a lease or opening up a bank account. Expect no less for university matriculation. While four passport photos may have already been sent off with forms before your departure, anticipate needing another four for your arrival in order to fill out even more forms.
Do not forget to bring the appropriate paperwork stating that you have adequate insurance; the new European Health Insurance Card is a must for Europeans. (See the website: www.ehic.ie). If you are coming from outside the EU you may need a student visa to study abroad. When you arrive, financial support is available to help pay for accommodation (see www.caf.fr). You will need to open a French bank account in order to receive this benefit.
One main difference between French and British university life is perhaps the intensity of work. In France, lectures can start at 8am and last up to three hours with no break. Exams are in oral or written form, but outside acquired knowledge is often unnecessary. A good grade can be obtained by simply regurgitating the information learnt from the lecturer over the term; this simplifies revision but the amount of information relayed in two hours is astonishing. Students shaking their hands from cramp after lectures are a common sight. Around revision time, those who write their notes on computers become everyone’s new best friend.
That is not to say that the British don’t work hard; there are some fundamental differences between the two university systems which need to be outlined. Firstly, everyone has the right to go to university in France with the Baccalauréat. This is different to Britain where the application process, through UCAS to a maximum of six universities, is more competitive. Once at university, the work ethic of Brits also varies from the French. An arts student in Britain will often have less than ten hours of contact with professors a week, but a student in France will have far more classes. Emphasis in Britain is thus on personal learning, and a lot of self-motivation is involved. (This of course excludes scientists and medics who have to do laboratory work.) While it may be easier to get into French university, it is less easy to succeed and the phenomenon of redoublement or repeating the year is more common.
Another big difference you will find at French university is the tendency to go home at the weekends. In Britain, students frequently choose to attend a university far from home and will travel back only for the holidays; often this is a student’s first real taste of independence. The “university experience” is therefore highly valued in British culture and all that comes with it: drinking, partying and of course learning. In France, many students stay within their region and attend the local university. While they may live outside of their home, they are never far from it.
Moving abroad will always require a certain degree of adjustment as you experience that initial feeling of cultural displacement. Whether it is the language, the weather or simply the people who seem alien to you, there is always something which is just not the same as home. Food can often play a more significant role than you would expect. There is sense in the phrase, “to find comfort in food,” especially when you find yourself at a loss scanning the supermarket shelves for that simple pot of Marmite or peanut butter and only seeing shelves and shelves stacked with Nutella. The French are very protectionist about their food products so remember to pack your own cheddar cheese!
Beware of the alluring patisseries and bakeries on almost every street corner. How do the French stay so slim with the temptation of all those delicious cakes? The answer is simple: they do not eat them! Sport is an unknown phenomenon and “jogging” does not figure in their vocabulary; to go for a stroll is far more respectable. As for the French stereotype, you will soon discover that the best place to put a baguette is indeed under your arm, especially when your hands are full with shopping bags.
Why study abroad?
Studying abroad, or the “Erasmus experience,” is one not to be missed. While it may seem expensive to move away from home, grants are often available through your home university or the Erasmus scheme. It may be that this is your one and only opportunity to live abroad before starting work, so take full advantage of it! Studying abroad gives you insight into not only the French education system but its culture, people and history. Everyday you are enveloped in a new way of life: be it a trip to the bakery, a stroll around the Saturday marché or just experiencing the transport system (both its efficiency and its more irritating strikes!)
Embrace any organisations set up by the university for exchange students, as these are great for meeting people, as are the sports clubs. An initial aim may be to fully integrate into French university life, but this is often hindered by the fact that you will always be regarded as a “foreigner”. As a result, an Erasmus group often forms with a wonderful amalgamation of nationalities presenting both advantages and disadvantages. While conversations will consist of a mix of French, Spanish, English, German etc, nothing will compare to the network of friends which you will form across the globe.
What better reason to study abroad than to discover the ins and outs of French life and to establish a group of friends whom you can visit on future travels?