France has belatedly started a determined campaign to catch up with its "Anglo-Saxon" competitors in the international market of higher education, setting out to entice foreign students, particularly postgraduates, from outside its traditional French-speaking intake to study here. It aims to train more of the next generation of world leaders and elites, spread French culture and improve its balance of payments.
Last November, the ministries of education and of foreign affairs launched Edufrance, an agency to promote France's universities and grandes ecoles and attract students from abroad.
With its 130,000 foreign students, France is some way behind the United States' 500,000, and Britain's 200,000. Education minister Claude All gre said France wanted to enrol 500,000 students from abroad within four years - equal to a quarter of its total student body. This would be achieved largely by concentrating recruitment efforts on South America and Asia which represent only 2.7 per cent and 0.7 per cent of foreign students in France. Edufrance kicked off its campaign in Mexico and India.
France is anxious not to lose out in "a world market dominated by the Anglo-Saxons" that, according to a joint ministerial report, could become "an important vehicle for the economic, cultural, scientific and educative presence, and therefore influence, of France".
Pointing out that higher education and training globally represented a FFr130 billion (E19.4 billion) market, Mr All gre said: "By training a foreign elite, France will increase its cultural influence and harvest the fruits for its economy."
Edufrance is targeting individuals and international organisations that sponsor educational programmes. Foreigners pay the same token tuition fees as French students, but are charged for services such as housing.
Mr All gre insisted that lack of French need not be an obstacle, and said some teaching in English was offered. "As long as we don't close the door on English, people will come here, then return home speaking French," he said.
Literature at the Indian promotion, however, recommended learning French before setting out or taking an intensive course on arrival. Most foreign students are from former French colonies or countries where French is spoken. In 1995-96, 129,761 foreigners were studying in France, most of them postgraduates. More than half, 66,790, came from Africa, including 19,161 Algerians, 17,069 Moroccans, 5,095 Tunisians and 4,012 Cameroonians.
Of the 35,944 Europeans studying in France, ,799 were from the European Union, with 5,461 Germans followed by 3,825 British, 3,425 Italians, 3,265 Portuguese and 3,252 Spanish. Lebanon (2,898 students), where French is widely spoken, topped the list of Middle East and Asian countries, which together accounted for 17,571. Next came Iran with 2,245, Turkey (1,744) and South Korea (1,593).
The 8,630 from the western hemisphere were represented in greatest numbers by the US (2,642), Brazil (1,2) and Canada (1,048). Numbers were boosted in January when 100 Brazilian postgraduate engineering students arrived for a year at several of France's top engineering schools.