France and international students – a perspective

In the current context of internationalization and increased competition between universities and countries, attracting international students is a major challenge all countries have to take – including France. France has already an excellent potential since it is the 4th country with the most international students, after the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia – and the 1st non-English-speaking country, before Germany[1]. This trend is confirmed by the latest QS World University Rankings. Unsurprisingly, French universities perform the best in the International Students index, with 15 institutions in the top 200 in this indicator. This is opposed to only five French universities in the top 200 for the overall rankings.

However, the efforts for making French universities even more attractive to foreign students are thwarted by some of the country’s policies or procedures. Two years ago, the controversial “circulaire Guéant”, from the name of the Interior Minister at the time, Mr Claude Guéant, was a hot topic of debate before it was eventually repealed by the government elected in May 2012[2]. This circular was restricting the right for foreign graduates of French higher education institutions to extend their stay in France with a first work experience. Although the Budget Minister and former Higher Education Minister Ms Valérie Pécresse would ostensibly disagree with the policy, reminding Guéant of the more preferred “university attraction strategy”, the circular had been in use for several months, pushing several high-potential graduates away from France until its repeal last year[3]. Commentators had talked about this unfortunate brain drain, when France currently is in lack of engineers.

Other turn-offs for some international students include traditionally long and complex administrative procedures to get visas. And French universities do not keep enough track of their foreign alumni, a report published in June 2013 for the Ministry of Higher Education has found[4]. The authors recommend, among other things, a simplification of the visa procedures and a better welcome and follow-up for international students.

In spite of these bumps on the road, France still retains its cachet and can boast a number of strengths: a quality higher education system; historical universities such as La Sorbonne; a rich heritage and, last but not least, tuition fees among the lowest in the world. Public universities generally make no distinction between domestic and international students: all students, regardless of their nationality, have to pay €183 (excluding student social security) per year for an Undergraduate degree and €257 per year for a Master’s degree (excluding degrees in Engineering). However, some commentators suggest that universities start implementing higher tuition fees for international students, as it is done in the US or the UK[5].

The main issue for France now, as for most countries around the world, is how to diversify the countries of origin for the international students, who traditionally come from former French colonies (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, etc.), to attracting students from emerging countries such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). In fact, China is already the second country of origin for international students in France – the 1st being Morocco[6]. Last July, measures were announced by France’s Ambassador to India, Mr François Richier, to ease visa procedures for Indian students[7] – 2,600 Indian students already study in one of France’s 800 programs taught in English[8]. There are also an increasing number of university collaborations between Brazil and France[9], confirming the importance of emerging countries in defining the landscape of international mobility for the years ahead.

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