It was at the annual meeting of Francophone universities held in Paris in November 2018 that the Prime Minister of France unveiled his country’s strategy, labelled “Choose France”, aimed at increasing the number of international students studying in universities in France from 245,000 in 2016 to 500,000 in 2027. Among the measures outlined were: facilitate the issuance of visas in the students’ countries of origin; greater administrative support to students on arrival; improved access to housing, including in university residences; increase in the number of students learning French as a foreign language; and more courses taught in English.
Then came the announcement by the Prime Minister that, with effect from the academic year 2019-20, the annual tuition fees for all non-European students in public universities would increase from currently €170 to €2,770 ($3,100) for License(Bachelor’s degree), and from €243 and €380 for Master’s and Doctorate, respectively, to €3,770 ($4,250). It would appear that the French Rectors had not been consulted and the decision took those present by surprise. The justifications given for these multi-fold increases are: tuition rates in France are among the lowest in the world; the economic cost of higher education in France is roughly €10,000 per year, so the majority of international students are paying less than 2% of the real cost; foreign students do not pay taxes in France and therefore do not contribute to the financing of higher education; and the additional funds collected are needed to improve the support services for international students. Another reason given is that low-cost courses are often regarded as of poor quality.
There were immediate protests by international students on French campuses, supported by national students, partly in solidarity with their international friends but no doubt also fearing that an increase in fees for national students would follow. However, these protests got drowned in the wider ‘yellow vests’ protests that started around the same time in France. Several French universities also took a stand and announced that they would not increase their tuition fees for foreign students, but they were firmly reminded by the minister for higher education that they are duty-bound to abide by government’s decision.
Although one could question the sudden and massive increase in international fees in France, the new rates are actually still low compared to what prevails in other countries (US, UK, Australia, Canada, etc.). Also, most countries do apply differentiated fees between national and international students, using essentially the same arguments as in France. So, the proposals are not unreasonable. The main issue, however, is whether the increased fees and accompanying measures would really attract more international students, which is the main thrust of the strategy.
In 2016, France was ranked fourth among countries with the largest number of international students, behind the US, UK and Australia, in that order. Germany and Russia followed closely behind, with a difference of only about 800 students between them. And while all these countries have been experiencing growth in international students over the period 2011-2016, France has recorded a decrease of 8.5% over the same period.
A closer look at the figures shows that 45% of foreign students in France originate from Africa, essentially the Francophone countries: 24% from North Africa (mainly Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) and 21% from Sub-Saharan Africa (mainly Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon). Besides the very low tuition fees, Francophone African students prefer to study in France because of cultural affinity. In fact, in a 2017 survey of foreign students in France, 78% of them indicated France’s cultural influence as the principal reason for their choice. The cultural and economic ties between France and its former colonies have always remained very strong, much more so than in the case of UK.
The pertinent question then is: would the increase in tuition fees deter Francophone African students from coming to study in France? This is highly unpredictable and would largely depend on affordability. Students from the high-income group should have no difficulty in paying the increased fees. On the other hand, those from the low-income group usually manage to cover their transportation cost to France and then have to work during their studies to meet their living expenses. It is very likely that they would now consider cheaper options within or outside Africa. There is hardly any information available on the socio-economic status of African students studying in France.
France is conscious of the impact that higher tuition fees would have on African students and, in its strategy, it mentions that the number of French government scholarships will increase from 7,000 to 15,000, priority being given to students from North and Sub-Saharan Africa. French universities will also be able to provide scholarships or fees exemptions. However, these are relatively small numbers and it is unlikely that they will make a great impact. France is equally conscious of the competition it faces from countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that have deliberate policies for attracting African students using either economic or cultural strategies. In turn, France will be targeting emerging countries such as China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Russia and Brazil, but this would require running more courses in English.
Only time will tell whether France can achieve its target of half a million students by 2027 and maintain its current position of being the fourth country with the largest number of foreign students, or whether it will lose out to Germany and Russia. Should France, like several European countries now, opt to significantly increase its course offerings in English in order to attract more international students from non-Francophone countries? Or should it maintain its close affinity to the French language and to the promotion of French culture by continuing to target mainly Francophone countries for its student recruitment, in spite of the increase in fees? Or should it venture at doing both at the same time? The next few years should provide clearer answers to these questions.
Goolam Mohamedbhai is the former Secretary-General of the Association of African Universities, the former President of the International Association of Universities and the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius.