Académie des technologies

The use of english in higher education

Following suit to various opinions expressed in the preparatory phases of a new French law for Higher Education, in regard to use of the English language in French Higher Education, the national Academy of technologies of France (NATF) approves the measures proposed by the Government, taking into account the following two considerations:

Non national students and academic teaching staff in France

In the ongoing global economic competition, knowledge represents a strategic challenge. France’s Higher Education must be in a position to attract the most promising non national students and the best international research scientists, who will later become our ‘ambassadors, providing a very positive impact in terms of what is known as political ‘soft power’ and economic location influence. Countries such as the USA, the UK, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany have fully understood the potential here. France has registered some 230 000 non-national, non European students, has a long-standing tradition in this area. But the numbers are decreasing and France recently moved down from 4th to 5th rank among the countries who welcome non-national students. France’s merit rating here is definitely deteriorating.

Attracting non-national students to French HE institutions by proposing certain courses in English is essential. For instance, France has only matriculated 3 000 Indian nationals, who generally have excellent levels in Science and Technology. This shortfall in non national students represents a real loss in both short and long terms. Those who opt to stay in France after graduation form a high-quality reservoir of skills for our research establishments and the industrial sectors and can themselves set up innovating start-ups. Later, we can frequently observe that the contacts and relationships between French and non-French students who follow the same courses in our engineering schools or universities continue to flourish after their student period. Foreign students who have learned to appreciate our culture and who have become good or even fluent in French on a daily basis are obviously potential partners for intellectual and economic co-operation after they return to their respective home countries.

If we wish to see this ‘nebula of sympathy and friendship’ develop, in support of dissemination of the French language, then the non-French speaking foreign students should be encouraged to follow specific courses in French as a foreign language (FFL) in their chosen cursus while studying in France.

In the case of foreign academic staff and where there is a possibility that they deliver their courses in English (provided they have sufficient mastery of English – to the extent that this might not be their mother tongue) – this will prove conducive not only to increasing the level of attractiveness of France’s HE institutions, but also to increasing a very varied stock of skills in France. Non-French lecturers now represent over one third of the academic staff in engineering and commercial schools, whereas they were few and far between a decade ago. In recent years, our Universities have sought to recruit very high level specialists on a regular basis, ranging from Nobel Prize laureates, greater numbers of research scientists and lecturers for our HE laboratories, profiting from the influx of new skills and facilitating the dissemination of research results. Choice of user-language should not be seen as an obstacle.

Practice and skills in English among French students

Knowledge and skills in the English language are very patchy so say the least after completing secondary schooling; at the same time, it must be recognised that mastery of this “international dissemination vector” (which does not include “international culture”) is an absolutely vital skill to be acquired. Lecturers and research scientists are familiar with this; they use and practise the language extensively. Scientific and technological papers are in the main published in English and conference communications and interventions likewise are delivered in English.

In our engineering schools, about a quarter, occasionally a third of the courses are given directly in English. (NB – this does not apply to all courses since some subject-matter calls for a French language delivery, given the need for precise terminology and accuracy in expression/understanding).

Indeed, it would prove discriminatory and inefficient if our universities did not propose multi-lingual courses, all the more so when we consider that mastery of a foreign language is an obvious added-value when it comes to job-seeking interviews. Some of our Universities already propose courses in English.


Para.2 of the draft “ESR” [higher education and research] law represents the means to attain the aims set out by the French Code for Education (para. 121-3: “Mastery of the French language and knowledgeable skills in two other languages are part of the fundamental objectives of French schooling”).

It offers a more complete training package to French students, better adapted to a highly competitive international context. It will facilitate scientific, technological and economic co-operation with other countries, including the emerging nations.

Scientific research and technological applications are international by nature; this feature will clearly become stronger and self-evident in the future. The French research community and industrialists must be helped in these matters and not treated unfavourably compared with practice in other countries.

The National Academy of Technologies of France (NATF) is highly in favour of using English in Higher Education and expresses the wish to see such practice extended to Continuing Education policies.