Transform France's educational offer abroad, says report

A lack of strategy and autonomy are to blame for French universities’ failure to keep pace on transnational education, study suggests

September 27, 2016
Concorde enthusiast waves French flag
Source: Reuters

France requires an “urgent” new strategy to expand the numbers of students its universities teach abroad, a major review has recommended.

Despite educating almost 37,000 students across the world last year, French higher education lagged considerably behind the world’s main providers of transnational education – the US, UK and Australia – according to the report published on 26 September by France Stratégie, a thinktank sponsored by the office of the French prime minister.

Not including distance learning, the UK has nearly three times as many students in its programmes abroad (95,000) as France, says the first-ever quantitative analysis of French transnational education.

Its distance learning provision is also modest, reaching just 5,700 students internationally compared with the 110,000 who took a UK training course online in 2014, the report adds. The figure was 25,000 for Australia. 

France’s “niche offer” abroad largely consisted of students taking master’s courses, with some 70 per cent of degrees awarded abroad at postgraduate level, often in specialised fields where the country enjoys a strong reputation, such as fashion, hospitality and the hotel industry, the report says.

Those courses tended to have smaller enrolments – around 200 on average – than the mass-market undergraduate programmes that formed the bulk of provision from UK and Australian universities, the report says.

Engineering schools were the most active participants in French transnational education, with almost 7,000 students abroad, while business schools had 3,000, with French universities tending to limit their involvement to partnerships with overseas institutions.

“In short, universities are not heavily involved in this form of internationalisation,” says the report, which is titled French Transnational Education: The Urgent Need for a Strategy.

The country’s limited provision of third-level education abroad is blamed on the “absence of any stable or clearly stated strategy” from government, while “with a few exceptions...institutions’ strategies in this area remain largely unformulated” – with managers seeing international issues as being of “secondary importance”.

It calls on the state to adopt a “proactive strategy” to improve the “worrying” state of French transnational education, which has its roots in “Franco-French constraints and issues”, such as excessive governmental red tape, “institutions’ still limited autonomy, regulatory provisions regarding graduation and the legibility of our present system”.

Institutions should also be given more means to finance international projects, as well as “more room for action regarding pricing rules on tuition fees for their programmes abroad” to take advantage of the “silent revolution” that internationalisation represents in higher education.

With tuition fees for domestic and international students at minimal levels – under €200 (£171) – French universities do not have the same incentives as UK universities to enrol international students, explained Tim Gore, chief executive officer of the University of London Institute in Paris.

“As they do not gain the majority of their income from fees, it takes away the economic incentive to attract foreign students, but there are other motivations to do this – sometimes related to wider national objectives, such as economic development,” he said.

But some higher education institutions are already very entrepreneurial and more likely to trade abroad, Mr Gore added, noting that France is still “an important player” in this area, particularly in its former colonies in Africa and Asia.

“There is a view that Anglo-Saxon universities are much more mercenary [about attracting international students], but France has many institutions – such as grandes écoles and, of course, business schools which charge reasonable fees – which are quite autonomous and are fairly entrepreneurial,” he said.

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