France welcomed 324,000 students from outside the European Union to its universities and other schools of higher learning in 2016.
Unveiling a new strategy on Monday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said his government wants to boost that figure to 500,000 by the year 2027.
France is already the world’s top non-anglophone destination for foreign students, and fourth overall, but recent trends suggest it risks losing its position.
The number of foreign students declined by 8 percent from 2010 to 2015, and while there was some improvement in 2016, France has not reclaimed the third place in overall rankings that it lost to Australia in the first half of the decade.
Now several other countries threatening to surpass France in the rankings if current trends continue.
“France can keep all the things that make it attractive, but we are starting to stall,” Philippe said. “We can do a lot better.”
A need to help navigate student life
Philippe unveiled the strategy at an annual forum for professionals in the university and diplomatic sectors, the Rencontres universitaires de la francophonie (Meeting of Francophone Universities).
Some of the university representatives at the forum said they had been expecting and hoping for such a strategy to arrive, especially in regards to some of the challenges in navigating French society.
“When the international students come, they have to figure out for themselves how it works,” said Minh-ha Pham, vice president for international relations at Université PSL (formerly Paris Sciences and Letters Research University), which groups a number of France’s famous grandes écoles (elite schools).
She compares the French university culture with that of the United States, which has by far the world’s largest cohort of international students.
“You have a lot of services when you arrive at the campus, and you also have this campus life, meaning that students are out of their families for several years, and also in the United States, they have this community way of thinking and behaving,” she said.
“In France, it’s much more individualistic. People are closer to their families, we don’t have separate campuses, most of the universities are inside the cities, and students don’t live at the university.
“So it’s totally different. Although we are attached to our universities, we don’t have this very strong link that the students have with their alma mater in Anglo-Saxon countries.”
The new French strategy aims to better accompany students from their arrival, including finding housing and helping with visas and other complex administrative procedures, as well as doubling the number of language classes in French and English.
“These measures are a huge step forward,” said Guillaume Garreta, director of international relations at the University of Paris-Saclay.
“We hoped for them, and we were expecting them as well.”
Will more expensive education be better?
The most controversial aspect of the plans, but also one that comes as little surprise, is the introduction of significant tuition fees for the first time.
Until now, international students have paid only the same administrative annual fees as French and European students, as little as 170 euros per year.
Starting in September 2019, they will pay annual tuition fees of 2,770 euros for undergraduate programmes and 3,770 euros for masters and doctoral programmes.
The idea is to use some of the new funds to provide 14,000 new scholarships and stipends for the same body of students, on top of the 7,000 already available.
“France was an exception in regards to the countries with which it wants to compare itself” in terms of cost of higher education, Garreta said.
“The idea is to use these fees to develop a new policy of attractiveness, to give scholarships and perhaps exemptions and stipends to very good students.”
While the strategy introduces significant fees for the first time, the fees are still far more affordable than the tens of thousands worth of fees to pay in some programmes in Britain and the United States.
Universities will be waiting to see whether the new model has the desired effect of boosting France’s attractiveness.
“We have to be very attentive about what it amounts to,” Garreta said.
“For example, in Germany, there are almost no fees at the doctoral level, so if we introduce them in France, we have to see how it will affect recruitment in some fields.
The introduction of fees also marks a cultural shift in a country with a tradition valuing equal access to education.
“In France we have this tradition of universities being free, because we consider that this is our culture, that culture is something that should be affordable for everybody,” said Minh-ha Pham.
“Now the reality is that we are going global and need to be more attractive,” she continued. “It’s much more open, it’s not only a national way of thinking, but of course the question of the fees is very difficult, because we have to change our way of thinking.”