International student tuition fees in France – a valuable idea?

International student tuition fees in France – a valuable idea?

With just one week to go until that exciting moment where every single conference participant comes together for the Opening Plenary in Glasgow, we bring you yet another fascinating blog post from the 2015 Conference Conversation Starter series. Addressing the incredibly timely issue of tuition fees for international students through the lens of the French case, the third blog post in this series is sure to strike a chord with higher education professionals and students alike.

This year’s Conference Conversation Starter tackles, among other things, the topic of tuition fees for international students. This topic begs the question: what is the value of international students to universities? Is it about the money they can bring to the university (or the country)? Is it about the diversity they bring to the classroom? Is it about educating students from less developed economies for the global public good?

In the first half of this year, these questions came under scrutiny in France, as the first serious debate about introducing international student tuition fees transpired. At a time when higher education systems in many parts of the world are undergoing financial austerity, France is not the first country to open this debate and will certainly not be the last. But, like any debate on this topic, the national context shapes the nuances of the discussion. France is not only the third most attractive country for international students globally, but also a country where half of all international students come from Africa.

Welfare states

European welfare states might be particularly vulnerable to such issues, as they conceive education as a right and provide it either for free or at low tuition fees. Governments in these countries bear the major share of the cost of education. In times of economic hardship, it becomes interesting to question whether they should be investing in the education of individuals who are not likely to participate in the national economy. The fact that such debates have been omnipresent in the Nordic countries – the archetypical welfare states – in the past decade shows how prevalent this question has become. Denmark and Sweden now charge international student tuition fees, and Finland will likely start doing so by 2016 – despite mixed reviews of the trial period and resistance from student unions.

The state of French higher education

As far as French public universities are concerned, at €189.10 annually for all undergraduates (domestic or foreign) in the 2014−2015 academic year, tuitions are considered very low. The government bears most of the cost of public higher education – 80.8% in 2015 according to the OECD. It was estimated, in 2012, that government funding per student amounted to over €11 000, up from €7 000 in the 1980s. This trend has been parallel with a continuous increase in the number of students. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that questions started to arise about the funding of higher education and the possibility of implementing higher tuition fees for international students.

In 2015, a report (English summary) about the internationalisation of higher education by France Stratégie, a think tank working for the French prime minister, suggested the introduction of full cost tuition fees for international students, using the funds saved to subsidise the internationalisation of universities. France, however, has some unique characteristics that might make the decision more difficult.

Attractive to whom?

France is a unique case because of the position it holds as an attractive country for international students. France was ranked the third most attractive study destination in the world by UNESCO, attracting as much as 7% of the total of 2 million mobile students globally. Interestingly, the ranking is topped by the United States and the United Kingdom – two countries known for their high tuition fees.

The issue of international student fees in France sparks acute debate at least in part because of the origin of its students. Nearly half of all international students in France come from Africa – a heritage from France’s colonial past. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, and Cameroon are all in the top 10 countries of origin. Are these typically students who can afford more than 10 000 euros in tuition fees? This issue is emphasised by the responses of a survey where 82% of international students in France declared that studying in France represented a financial strain for their family, even at the current low tuition fees.

What does France stand to lose in this trade-off? France would lose a large share of its international students – about 40% according to the France Stratégie report, a number that would be hard to replace. France probably does not have the ability to attract the students that can afford the type of tuition fees the report is proposing, especially if one considers the language barrier when compared to the United States and United Kingdom. France would also see a considerable loss in the diversity of its higher education. Last but not least, in 2014, economic benefits from the presence of international students on French soil were estimated at €4.5bn, with a positive balance of €1.5bn once the cost of tuition was removed. This far exceeds the €850 million that the France Stratégie report estimates would be saved from moving to full tuition fees. It would simply be a bad economic move for France.

A debate resolved – for now

In July 2015, the French government put an end to the debate by stating that international students would continue to pay the same tuition fees as domestic and European students. Questioning this system is no longer taboo, and the discussion is likely to resurface. This is a strategic decision that needs to be made clear by addressing all facets: should the focus be on the economy, the diversity in the system, the global and national public good, or foreign affairs? France, like many other countries, will need time to weigh the benefits and disadvantages brought by international students.

Ariane is a research assistant at the Center for International Higher Education and a PhD student in the Higher Education programme at Boston College.

If you’re joining us in Glasgow you’ll receive a hard copy of the Conference Conversation Starter on-site, but you can already sneak a peek at the full book by downloading it from My Conference. If you’re an EAIE member, you can find it in the Member Centre today. Make sure to stay tuned as we have more exclusive blog posts from contributors coming up this week!