French universities challenge fee hike for international students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The French government has announced a fee increase for students from outside the European Union
  • The new fees are meant to come into effect in September 2019 but a number of French universities are resisting the change, and have indicated that they will not implement the fee policy
  • The tuition increase is part of a larger international recruitment strategy announced by France – a strategy designed to achieve a substantial increase in the country’s foreign student numbers over the next several years

If a university announced a 10% increase in international students’ tuition fees from one year to the next, the move might be unpopular among students but would likely not have a significant impact on future enrolments. But if it were to introduce fees representing an 800% or 1,500% increase over the previous year, there is little doubt that could pose a more significant challenge.

The prospect of such a significant fee hike for international students is not theoretical in France, but rather has been recently mandated by the French government, and several universities are sounding the alarm. As of this writing, 17 institutions have announced that they will not abide by the increased fee structure for non-EU students as prescribed by the government’s new “Choose France” international recruitment strategy. The strategy was unveiled in November 2018, is due to take effect in September 2019, and France’s universities insist that they have not had enough time to prepare.

France is one of the world’s most popular non-English-speaking study destinations and has traditionally maintained very low tuition to international students, especially relative to tuition in countries like the US and UK. Even with the planned tuition increase for this year, it will remain a highly affordable destination for students from outside the European Union.

Background

Under the new “Choose France” strategy – the goal of which is to increase foreign enrolments to 500,000 students by 2027 – undergraduate tuition fees for international students will now be €2,770 per year (up from €170 per year previously). The fees charged to international students for advanced degrees have moved from less than €400 in 2018 to €3,770 in 2019.

These fee hikes are to fund a tripling in the number of scholarships offered to foreign students and will be offset by generous government subsidies. In addition, they are meant to balance a situation in which French citizens, through the taxes they pay, have financed their publicly funded university education system, while international students – who do not pay such taxes – have not. When announcing the fee hike late last year, French Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe noted that, “A well-off foreign student pays the same tuition fees as a French student from a disadvantaged background whose parents have been living, working and paying taxes in France for years.”

As a counter to that justification for the increased fees, Daniela Susanibar Rosas, a law student at Paris-1 University appearing on the France 24 Debate show, said that international students “work here, we pay rent, we move the economy – there are small cities in France that work only because they are student cities.”

The government has also made the case that the country’s historically low fees have been a detriment rather than a drawing card for France, arguing that low fees are equated with low educational value. And, the new fees will still be lower than those that many higher education institutions elsewhere charge to international students. Prime Minister Phillipe noted that, “The fees will remain well below the €8,000 to €13,000 charged by the Dutch or the tens of thousands of pounds paid in Britain.”

But the fact remains that for most international students, the cost of higher education in France will be much less affordable as of this September. The decision to alter fees so drastically is causing waves to ripple across the university sector, especially as many of the sector’s stakeholders feel that they were not adequately consulted in advance and have thus not been able to develop their own strategies in response.

Standoff between universities and government

The universities so far that have said they will not increase fees this September for international students are Clermont-Auvergne, Aix-Marseille, Toulouse Jean-Jaures, Lyon-II, Nanterre, Rennes-II, Angers, Le Mans, Tours, Rennes-I, Caen, Rouen-Normandy, Strasbourg, Lorraine, Grenoble, Paris-Sud and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

Nathalie Dompnier, president of Lyon 2 University, told French media outlet France 24 that,

“There was no discussion with the academic world. We discovered the figures in November and received no explanation for the increase in fees and how it was calculated. We don’t know what financial support measures will be put in place, so we will not implement the fee increase.”

Nadia Dupont, who works at the University of Rennes-II, complained that the new fee structure will discriminate against less wealthy international students, saying, “France honours itself by showing it can welcome students from poor backgrounds, we must not turn back on this principle.” In the online newspaper Libération, she explained that the group of dissenting universities is calling the government to reverse the decision to increase fees.

Mathias Bernard, the president of the Clermont-Auvergne University, said that if the government refuses to revert to the previous tuition levels for international students, the dissenting universities will use “all the legal means available” to try to ensure that international students do not have to pay increased fees.

In the meantime, universities can use a law established in 2013 that allows them to waive the fees of 10% of enrolled students. This at least will allow them to offer low fees to a portion of the most talented and/or financially limited international students.

More than 60 professors and lecturers have signed a Le Monde op-ed arguing that higher fees would lower enrolments from Africa, a region responsible for 45% of France’s international enrolments and one where affordable higher education is the only option many residents can consider.

A spokesperson for the CPU, an association of French university presidents, told the media outlet RFI that “a change in fees could affect partnerships and exchange agreements already in place with other universities around the world.”

So far the response from the French government has been to remind dissenting universities of their “duty of obedience and loyalty as civil servants.”

Market adjustments to higher fees

Other destinations that have implemented significant increases in international student tuition fees serve as useful reference points for the current debate in France.

When New Zealand introduced higher fees, for example, it made sure to establish more scholarships and expand working rights for foreign students. But when Sweden raised fees in 2011, the total number of new foreign student enrolments dropped by a third between 2010 and 2011. Since then numbers have risen, but slowly.

For additional background, please see:



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