Increasing tuition fees for international students in France – a move described as a “paradigm shift” by university presidents – is a key plank of the country’s plan to double overseas enrolments in a decade.
France, along with some other continental European countries such as Germany, has traditionally set nominal or non-existent tuition fees for students regardless of where they come from.
But in justifying the price hike – from about €170 (£151) a year to €2,770 at bachelor’s level and €3,770 at master’s level – French officials are reported to believe that ultra-low fees are seen in countries such as China as a sign of poor quality.
France is aiming to capitalise on the perceived dwindling attractiveness of the UK and the US in the era of Brexit and Donald Trump and has set a target of hosting 500,000 international students by 2027, more than twice the 2016 figure of just over 245,000.
Observers said that French officials’ concerns about their fee regime might be justified. Derrik Karst, director of international engagement at EduFair China, a platform that aims to inform Chinese students about Western universities, said that the price increase “should help clear up some misconceptions about the quality of education at French universities”.
“In my conversations with Chinese students, many students feel that tuition fees of a couple hundred [euros] seem too good to be true,” he said.
Almut Caspary, senior higher education consultant at the British Council, agreed that the “perception among students seems to be that there is a correlation between the level of fees and the quality of education”.
The number of international students in France dropped by 8.5 per cent between 2011 and 2016, meaning that France fell behind Australia as a destination country and was almost caught by Germany and Russia. The government is also worried about China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey eating into African student cohorts who traditionally study in France.
The French government’s plan also proposes doubling the number of students taking courses taught in English, although such a move could prove controversial. The switch to English as a language of instruction is a vexed question across Europe that has become particularly acute in the Netherlands, where universities have faced a political backlash for moving away from Dutch. The French plan holds up the Netherlands as a – seemingly positive – case study, noting how a switch to English has coincided with a surge in the number of international students.
Despite the prospect of greater fee income, the response to the plan from France’s Conference of University Presidents was cautious, calling the decision to raise fees a “paradigm shift” in French policy with as-yet-unknown consequences, and warning that it would be detrimental to universities if the changes put off high-performing students.
The increased fees should also not be used as a “pretext” for cutting government support for institutions, the body said.