Free higher education ruling throws French fees into doubt

Constitutional Council decision could strike a blow against expansion plan for international students and grandes écoles’ fees policy

October 18, 2019
Source: Getty

France’s move to charge foreign students higher tuition fees has been thrown into doubt by a ruling from the country’s Constitutional Council that higher education must be free.

An increase in tuition fees for non-European Union students from about €200 (£172) a year to €2,770 at bachelor’s level and €3,770 at master’s had been a key part of France’s plan to expand its international student population.

The government hopes to double the number of international students that France hosts by 2027, compared with 2016 levels. Policymakers are concerned that minimal fees at French universities are interpreted as a sign of poor quality in countries such as China.

But many universities have resisted implementing the hike, which came into force at the beginning of this academic year. A collection of student groups also launched a legal challenge.

This led to a ruling by France’s Constitutional Council that the constitutional right to free education applied to higher education, too.

The “historic” ruling “closes the debate” on bringing in fees for students in France, said Robin Manoury, vice-president of UNEDESEP, a union representing law, management, political and economic science students, and one of the organisations that brought the challenge. “This is a good decision for all French and international students.”

However, despite affirming the principle of free higher education, the Constitutional Council did confirm that universities could nevertheless charge “modest” fees, taking into account how much students could afford.

What “modest” means in practice will now be decided by France’s top administrative court, the Council of State. Mr Manoury said he was “pretty optimistic” that it would rule that the government’s proposed fee hike for non-EU students went too far. But following the ruling, the government has argued that the increased fees are “modest” because they cover only a third of what it costs to teach a student.

The ruling could also have major implications for institutions such as the elite grandes écoles, which sometimes charge significant fees to all students, EU and non-EU. France’s Conference of University Presidents has warned that the Constitutional Council had raised a “fundamental question that may lead to major upheavals in the balance of public higher education funding”.

In a statement, the Conference of Deans of French Schools of Engineering said that its member institutions’ tuition fees covered only a small proportion of the cost of education, ranging from 5 per cent to 25 per cent. Any cut to their funding would pose challenges to an already “fragile” financial situation, with falling per-student funding from the government, it said.

Grandes écoles appear to be staying quiet until the ruling has been clarified. A spokeswoman for Sciences Po said the institution was “paying attention to this decision and is awaiting more precision”. École Polytechnique was waiting for a full decision to see how it might be affected, according to a spokeswoman for the institution.

The grandes écoles and engineering schools “have to change, because this [ruling] closes the debate”, said Mr Manoury. “Grandes écoles’ students are going to attack their fees and are going to win,” he said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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