I’ve met quite a few students at LSE who also applied to study at Sciences Po – my home university. That might be you, or maybe you’ve never heard of Sciences Po before. (This hurts my pride a little… but I forgive you).
Each year LSE welcomes many Sciences Po students (like me!) to study on the year-long GO LSE exchange programme. Similarly, LSE sends out many undergraduate and graduate students, spread across a number of exchanges and dual-degree programmes. Both schools are similar in many ways: the competitiveness of the application procedure, their engagement with the highest tiers of social science research, the cosmopolitanism of their campuses, and the richness of the student life. Both universities are incredibly inspiring and rewarding places to study, but there are also some important differences to be aware of. In this blog I will draw on my own experiences to sketch what I perceive to be the main differences in the French and British higher education systems, and what that means in terms of workload, learning experience, and student life.
Half as many contact hours
The first and probably most striking difference between the French and British systems is the difference in contact hours (i.e. the number of hours of class – be it lectures or discussion sessions – per week). Actually, the number of contact hours halves when crossing the channel from France. Consequently, the first reaction of a French student is often: “So much free time, great! It feels like I’m on holiday!”
But is time out of the classroom really free time? Not at all. At LSE, teachers expect you to learn by yourself and to deeply engage with the course material at home, especially by way of the readings. In fact, with fewer contact hours, readings become indispensable! Therefore, the freedom enjoyed in the UK comes at a price of higher responsibilities.
Whether this is a good thing largely depends on your learning habits and preferences. However, having experienced 24 and 12 contact hours per week, I can give you my feelings about it. Having more autonomy in the learning process can be daunting, but it is also extremely stimulating. Reading a wide range of books and articles about a topic and taking the time to engage critically with the course material is incredibly rewarding and, as far as I am concerned, a very efficient way of learning. Exploring the wider literature is something that you don’t necessarily have the time to do in France (although you may be expected to). On the other hand, the reduced contact hours may be frustrating, especially if you have a hard time understanding a notion and would like to have someone explain it to you. That being said, I’ve noticed that LSE lecturers and teachers were really approachable and always eager to answer questions, be it by email or during office hours.
Wednesday is sports day!
Then, and probably related to the first point, I noticed that at LSE most people did not have class on Wednesdays. In fact, this day seems to be reserved for sports competitions (and LSE competes a lot!). This arrangement gives the impression that LSE considers sports as an integral part of students’ time at university, and is willing to fully accommodate it, which does not really seems to be the case in France.
¿Pagar para aprender un nuevo idioma ?
Another discrepancy linked with the different number of contact hours in both universities is the absence of mandatory language courses at LSE. In France, at least at Sciences Po, language courses are an integral part of the core curriculum, which comes with advantages as well as drawbacks. Obviously, it’s great to have the opportunity to learn a language for free (or at least without paying additional fees), and it gives an incentive to learn a language that you’d have never learnt otherwise. But, for many Sciences Po students, language courses are just an extra burden added to their already busy schedule. As a result, most students regard those classes as second-class courses diverting them from their true objectives (say, political science or economics), and in which they should not put too much effort.
But are language courses really absent from the LSE curriculum? Of course not. The LSE Language Centre offers a variety of courses that can be taken as options. At LSE, learning a language is a choice rather than an obligation, which may induce more motivation among students. Motivation also comes with the fact that you have to pay for those classes. But, fortunately, there are several ways to get discounts on language courses.
Mastering a topic, from top to bottom
Another thing that struck me is the precision and depth of many courses at LSE. Many courses have a fairly open curriculum, which allows students to focus on topics that they are interested in and really delve into it. In France, students are generally more restrained in their course choices and often those courses will cover a very broad topic, and perhaps only for one semester at that. In that sense, in the French system it can be a little harder to really focus in on just the topics that interest you and you might have the impression that what you’re learning is a bit superficial.
Where are the deadlines??
Finally, in the UK, it seems harder to know how well you are doing at university and easier to feel as if you were on holidays due to the relative lack of continuous assessment. In contrast, at Sciences Po, you’ll be assailed by essays and presentations from week one. Once again, LSE seems to give students the opportunity to put things into perspective. However, although not being harassed by deadlines might be a relief, it also means that your final grade will largely depend on one or two exams (or coursework) that you’d better not fail!
I hope that these insights were helpful, whether you’re a prospective LSE student from France or an LSE student considering doing a year abroad in France, or even someone who’s just curious about the pedagogical differences between France and the UK.
I repeat that the points I highlighted are only my opinion, based on my personal experience as a French student at LSE. Feel free to (respectfully) disagree with me in the comments!