Why French are skipping the Sorbonne for Britain

Students desert French universities in protest against strikes and militancy
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French students are deserting the Sorbonne because of the once élite university's reputation for militancy, strikes and abandoned lectures. They are also increasingly snubbing the country's prestigious Grandes Ecoles system for a new educational El Dorado – Britain.

New figures suggest that President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to reform higher education in France are long overdue. The Sorbonne – or University of Paris IV as it is now officially known – has lost almost one in four of its students in the past five years. The collapse in enrolments is blamed on the university's reputation for militancy and blocked – or overcrowded – lectures. At the same time, there is a growing trend for French students to apply directly through the UK admissions systems, UCAS, for undergraduate courses in Britain.

There are now believed to be 15,000 young French people studying in Britain of whom only about 4,000 are on exchange courses such as Erasmus. About 11,000 French students – the equivalent of an entire medium-sized university campus – are studying full-time for their first degrees in the UK.

Romain Tasle d'Heliand, 19, studying business management at the London School of Economics, said: "It is amazing how many French students are now in London. "If you want to avoid the hopeless morass of French universities and you are not prepared for the narrow slog of the Grande Ecoles, then Britain is the place to go," she added.

In France, higher education is divided between the universities, which are underfunded, overcrowded and distrusted by employers, and the Grandes Ecoles, which have traditionally been the preserve of a social or educational élite. To reach a Grande Ecole, students have to complete two years of preparatory classes, which are themselves difficult to enter.

President Sarkozy and the Higher Education minister, Valérie Pecresse, are trying – against both left-wing and conservative opposition – to rebuild the system. Universities have been allowed more independence and access to private funding. The Grandes Ecoles have been asked to open their doors more to students from poorer backgrounds.

In the meantime, many students have discovered a short-cut out of the French higher educational maze – taking the train, or plane, across the Channel.

Britain, as Ms Tasle d'Heliand pointed out, has become a haven for "moderate to good" French students who are rejected by the rigid and highly selective preparatory classes and Grandes Ecoles but don't want to enter the jungle of French universities.

Clémentine Beauvais, 21, who studied Education and English at Cambridge, said: "I think the French primary and secondary school system is far better than its British equivalent. But the French higher education system is absurd, with the split between Grandes Ecoles and university." She pointed out, however, that only relatively well-off students could go to Britain. EU students do not pay the inflated fees demanded of other international undergraduates but French universities are "virtually free", she said.

Hélène de Saint Vincent, 19, is on a joint four-year business course run by the Sorbonne in Paris and King's College in London. She said she "adored" her course in London but was fearful of going back to the Sorbonne after three prolonged strikes in the last four years.