When I applied for a degree in Law with French all those years ago (or so it seems), I did not give much consideration to the ‘year abroad’ component of the degree. I was interested in law and I really liked studying French and so the decision was simple.
Before I knew it, two years of my degree had flown by and I had to decide where in France I would be spending my year of study. I chose Université Jean Moulin Lyon III, as it had a good reputation for law and was in a fairly large city which I had never visited. Soon enough, one-way flights were booked, a flatmate was chosen and I had packed as much as I could into a suitcase.
University life in France
I found that there is a very different attitude to university life in France. In the UK, prospective university applicants tend to base their choices on criteria such as the level of prestige, course content and location. However, in France one tends to go to their local university, as the prestige of the course is deemed more important than the institution. As a result, many friendship groups are pre-existing and most students live at home. In addition, French universities do not have student unions and Freshers’ Week, and are not responsible for halls of residences.
The Erasmus Programme
I was on an Erasmus exchange programme, which as an obligatory part of my course meant that my applications were managed by my home university. I had to take a certain number of courses in order to get the diploma at the end of the year. One of the requirements of the course was that I did not take any modules in English law or topics that I had previously studied. Consequently, I studied French Civil Law, Constitutional Law, Administrative Law, and a few compulsory French grammar and history modules. I also attended an orientation week aimed at international students, where we were able to sample lectures and lessons.
We were examined through written exams, oral exams (these were exclusively for Erasmus students) and essays over the year. The mid-term essays were odd because there was a question set every week and the teacher would only question a few students in each class. However, the catch was that we did not know who would be chosen which meant that we had to prepare all of the essays but were only marked on a couple of them. It is worth noting that every seminar tutor, and indeed every university, has a different examination policy.
A legal career in France
In France, completing a Master’s degree is very common, as an undergraduate degree alone is not seen as enough. A Master’s degree lasts for two years and unlike UK postgraduate degrees it is not particularly expensive (several hundred Euros in most universities) and you have to apply for each year separately. Once you have completed your Master’s degree, you can apply for jobs and internships in the related field. Pursuing a legal career is not seen to be nearly as competitive as it is here in the UK. This explains why there is not a large focus on legal careers talks, events or interview preparation at university.
There is no distinction between a solicitor or barrister in France and in order to be a judge you have to attend a special school known as École Nationale de la Magistrature (ENM). Consequently, it is not uncommon to come across very young judges in France. This is a highly competitive course and only a small fraction of applicants are admitted.
Who does it better?
I think the main difference between university life in France and in the UK is that French students are spoon-fed more information by lecturers. There was never any extra reading for seminars and everyone typed what the lecturer said word-for-word during lectures because exams would be based solely on that information. In the UK, lectures provide a basic outline of what students are expected to know; most of their formative learning will be done in private rather than in the lecture theatre.
Examinations in France seem to be more varied; therefore, an entire module will not depend on one exam or piece of coursework. The exams that students take in any given term will reflect their learning over the duration of that term.
Other differences that I noticed include the fact that university application process in France is much quicker than in the UK – you queue up to register at your chosen university a few weeks before the year begins – and entry into French undergraduate courses (including law courses) are relatively uncompetitive (you have to have passed the baccalaureate as a minimum). French law degree courses are not expensive (again, a couple of hundred Euros) and there is a very different attitude towards university. Many French students would drop out in the middle of the term – or even after a year – and try a different course or leave university altogether. Such flexibility enables students to explore their interests and strengths with no grave financial detriment. However, the many hours spent by UK students on personal statements and researching universities and degrees means that they have invested a lot into their higher education before they even begin. Additionally, the competition to get into university starts from the application stage and I believe that this also feeds into students’ views of higher education.
Experiencing another culture and becoming accustomed to another way of doing things is always beneficial, as it opens you up to new ideas and can make you appreciate how things operate at home or perhaps consider how things could be improved. Learning about another legal system also does this in a theoretical sense and a comparison of systems is always interesting in an academic context. It is also interesting to note how differently things are done in a country that is so geographically and culturally similar to ours.