Visa plan a recipe for disaster, the crème de la crème argue

French elite protest harsher attitude to foreign graduates' post-study status. Clea Caulcutt writes

November 3, 2011



Credit: Corbis
Concert of Europe and beyond: the fame of the Sorbonne and other great French institutions was based on their inclusive approach, say critics of moves to restrict visas


The French government is facing a challenge from the country's leading universities over its tightening of post-study visa rules for overseas students.

Although France's higher education ministry has denied that it is turning its back on foreigners, graduates have criticised the visa regime, which they claim is becoming stricter and more confusing. Several hundred non-European Union graduates from top French universities were refused work visas this autumn despite the fact that they had found skilled jobs in the country.

Under the current regulations, overseas graduates in France can apply for post-study work visas if they find employment related to their degrees. But a memo issued by the interior and labour ministries earlier this year called on local authorities to deal with work-visa applications "rigorously", stating that employers should be encouraged to recruit locally before giving work to foreign graduates.

"It's as if the economy was a cake that had to be carved up, but foreign students in France create growth and jobs for others," said Louis Vogel, president of Pantheon-Assas Paris II University and head of the Conference of University Presidents.

Last month, the Conference of the Grandes Écoles, a group of elite French universities, appealed to the Ministry of the Interior to re-examine foreign graduates' applications.

The areas in which the graduates had found work included consultancy, internet technologies, and pharmaceutical and engineering, the group said.

Some 150 work-visa applications are now being re-examined.

"It's better than nothing, but we have to see how the process works out," said Professor Vogel.

Universities fear that the tougher approach to post-study work will discourage potential students from applying for courses in France.

"Universities should be open," explained Professor Vogel. "If the Sorbonne is famous today, it's because it welcomed students from all over Europe."

He added that it was important to recruit foreign students to maintain France's international competitiveness and image.

Bernard Ramanantsoa, head of the HEC Paris business school, expressed concern that the visa rules would reduce the flow of fee-paying foreign students and threaten the sustainability of the grandes écoles.

"I recently met potential students in Russia and their main concern was whether they could apply for work visas after their studies," he said.

Welcome mat versus lock and key

The tensions over immigration policy in France follow contrasting changes to student-visa regimes in other parts of the world.

In Australia, the government has agreed to relax its system following advice published by a review commissioned last December.

Led by former Labor minister Michael Knight, the review followed a downturn in overseas student recruitment following a series of highly publicised attacks against Indian students in the country.

Meanwhile, universities in the UK have been battling against plans by the Conservative-led coalition government to clamp down on the number of student visas issued.

The coalition has insisted that the restrictions are focused on sub-degree level courses and "bogus" colleges, but universities have warned of dire knock-on effects if "feeder colleges" are badly affected or put out of business.

Laurent Wauquiez, France's higher education minister, has denied that the country is closing its borders. "France is one of the top world destinations for foreign students and we want to continue welcoming new talent," he said.

But the 31 May Group of students protesting against the controversial memo on the topic say they receive 30 calls a day from graduates who have seen their applications for post-study work visas rejected or delayed.

Nabil Sebti, a Moroccan graduate of HEC who created two start-up companies during his studies, said he felt "humiliated" when his post-study visa was rejected.

"I now tell school-leavers who plan on working abroad after their studies that they'd be better off applying for courses in Canada, Australia or Germany," he said.

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