The French are not just good at exporting footballers to the UK. Their engineering students are in British universities and proliferate in UK engineering companies willing to take on stagiares students doing the industrial placement that is an integral part of French higher education.
However, the same cannot be said of British engineering students in France. First, the French speak our language better than we speak theirs, because they go on learning English right through university even on an engineering course. British students do not always see the relevance of the French experience. Why make life difficult when you can go and study in your native tongue in the US, Canada or the Netherlands?
Second, the French university system is a confusing hierarchy of the elite engineering schools the grandes ecoles with universities in the second division. To get into these schools, students in France must pass a competitive exam, requiring a high level of maths that gets more complex during the degree.
‘In France, engineering is a sexy career,’ says Gwenole Guiomard, editorial director of Go Editions, publisher of graduate careers guides. ‘Every French mother would like her daughter to marry an engineer.’ Entry to top engineering schools is intensely competitive.
In such a system, trying to find a common point where UK students can fit in with the French curriculum is not easy. ‘The two systems are very different,’ says Professor Jean-Pierre Trotignon, who represents the French engineering schools at the French embassy in London. ‘It is very difficult to have a clear exchange programme.’
Trotignon is the architect of a programme to get more English-speaking students on to French engineering courses. So far the search has been difficult. It is a new scheme, and is little known within universities. And unless UK industrial companies come up with sponsorship, it will be scrapped.
The scheme, called n+1, is different from the EU-funded exchange schemes where a student goes abroad for an academic year and attends lectures. Instead, the year is both an academic and industrial exchange, aimed at students who have just graduated.
The first term is a familiarisation course with a high content of French and maths in which British or Irish students are likely to lag behind followed by six weeks the next January working on an industrial project at a French company. After this, students spend a full 16 weeks at a grandes ecole, slotting in to the normal curriculum with fourth-year students. Then, in the summer, a final eight weeks is spent back on the industrial placement.
Closer French links
For British engineering companies, the scheme offers the chance of closer links with a French subsidiary, parent company, or a supplier company via a graduate engineer that they may seek to employ, or already employ. A more compelling attraction is that the sponsorship costs are small. To select a student and propose a project between January and August, small companies are being asked for Ffr40,000 (about £4,000), though the fee rises to £8,000 or £16,000 for larger firms. A reduced package costs £1,330, which puts a company on the n+1 Website with access to 50,000 students and 200 academic institutions in Britain, Ireland and France.
Belfast-based aluminium castings company Montupet is an industrial backer of n+1. It has sent an employee, recent graduate Alister Long, on the scheme to work at Montupet sister companies near Paris. ‘It broadens his whole outlook, and will also give him experience of our R&D facility in France,’ says Therese McGuckin, assistant personnel manager at Montupet. ‘But it also builds up relationships between individuals here and in our French companies.’
Rolls-Royce took a different approach, sponsoring a student who will work at some of Rolls-Royce’s customers at Aerospatiale.
Trotignon set up the scheme because the French government is trying to balance the flows of exchange students. The ratio with the UK is heavily biased in favour of French students. To continue to expand the numbers of French students studying in the UK, more British students have to be enticed into France.
Some people argue the benefits are weighted heavily in favour of the out-going French students. Marion Reszka, the head of Ensam, the French engineering school which is hosting the first group of n+1 students, admits the English language ‘will be without a shadow of doubt the language of the technical and commercial world’.
The benefits to UK or Irish students of time spent in France are slightly more subtle and centre on the perceived value of contacts with French business culture and industry. French students are streaming out to English-speaking countries for industrial and academic placements, outnumbering those coming into France by two to one.
It is also easier for French students to become dually qualified with the highly regarded French Diplome D’ingenieur and a British MEng. An Anglophone student with three years’ degree studies in the UK and one year on the n+1 programme in France would have to do a further year in France to get his or her Diplome D’ingenieur; getting a UK MEng would take a further year’s study in the UK. Talks are under way with British universities to allow the n+1 year in France to automatically qualify students for MEng, a factor which could significantly increase take-up of the scheme.
French students who carry out the n+1 programme in the opposite direction can do a year in the UK to get an MSc in engineering in place of their fifth year at a French engineering school. They then complete their diplome with a final term in France, and come away with a UK and French degree.
Trotignon’s first-year intake was small. He was hoping for 15 students, but has ended up with 11 from the UK and Ireland. And although the scheme was for graduate engineers, some taking part are just entering their third year. But Trotignon insists standards were not dropped to fill the places. More people are expected to take part next year, as the scheme is being extended to other disciplines, including biotechnology, electronics and telecoms.
If the project does take off, UK students will continue to be based in small groups of between 12 and 15, kept together for their induction term at one engineering school, before going their separate ways for the rest of the course. Each group will require sponsorship from a dozen industrial companies.
As Trotignon stresses, n+1 has to become self-financing, so the initiative in finding students and supplying funds has to come from industry. ‘I would say to companies, you can’t just wait for us to send you the students. It is your project, for your benefit.’