In November, the French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, announced a new strategy, “Choose France”, designed to increase the number of foreign students in the country from the current 324,000 to 500,000 by 2027.
Proposed initiatives include simplified visa procedures, more courses in English, more help with learning French, and a kitemark for institutions that best accommodate international students.
France remains the fourth most popular study-abroad destination, but it lost 8.5 per cent of its international students between 2011 and 2016, as Australia increased its market share by 28 per cent. Given France’s stagnating economic growth rates, international students have evidently been identified as one means to increase revenues. They have traditionally been charged the same low tuition fees as European Union students, but they will now be charged €2,770 (£2,470) for a bachelor’s degree, instead of the current €170, and €3,770 for master’s level, instead of €243.
France’s Conference of University Presidents applauded the strategy, but I have several concerns. One relates to how realistic it is in the French context. Its time frame goes well beyond the next presidential election in 2022. Moreover, it is common for grand policies to be whittled down once they collide with the realities of France’s bureaucratic rigidity and infrastructural shortcomings.
I also question the figures. Philippe envisages an average annual international student growth rate of 6.5 per cent. That would actually see France meet its 500,000 target by 2025, but, given that international student numbers are growing worldwide, even this would represent a drop in market share. To maintain its position, France would need to have more than 600,000 international students by 2027. That would be much closer to the doubling envisaged by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and quoted in the strategy document – but other countries are hardly going to just stand aside and let this happen.
Philippe thinks that introducing higher fees will make France more attractive because international students associate price with value. He also thinks the move will help to identify students who “merit” study in France. But this view of merit is very French. Despite the country’s general egalitarian passion, its political and economic elite is stacked with those able to afford the expensive preparation necessary to enter one of the grandes écoles – whose actual quality is rarely questioned, despite France’s lack of socio-economic progress.
Research suggests that international recruitment is most sensitive to perceived quality of teaching and institutional reputations. While universities in some countries charge higher international fees, they also provide students with a high return via their good reputations with employers and the quality of their facilities, accommodation and pastoral and academic support.
France’s annual spending per student is above the average for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, but state spending is 50 per cent higher on grande école students than on the majority, who go to universities. Dropout rates among the latter are high for a variety of reasons, including poor facilities, substandard teaching, overcrowded classes and a lack of personalised support. Hence, despite recent efforts to increase their international visibility, only two French universities are in the top 100 of the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
Services for international students are particularly poor. Administrative staff rarely speak English. Rules and guidelines are neither transparent nor translated, and systems are lacking to act on student complaints. At the grande école where I once taught, such issues left international students confused and isolated, reducing some to tears. The situation in universities is even worse.
The prime minister should also consider the message that his strategy is sending. By prioritising the rich elite above international students from poorer backgrounds, he will deal a further blow to the egalitarian pretensions of the French higher education system, as well as deprive it of a diversity of talents, languages and worldviews. He would also do well to ask himself why a student able to afford nearly €4,000 for a master’s degree would opt for France at all.
Juliette Torabian is a senior international expert in education and sustainable development. Her research focuses primarily on comparative higher education, social justice/mobility and gender equality. She has a PhD from the UCL Institute of Education.