The renowned French protectiveness of their culture and language has come into conflict with the role of English as the lingua franca of business and science in a brewing controversy involving a potential increase in English language university instruction. Today ICEF Monitor looks at both sides of the question and considers potential ramifications for international mobility.
Geneviève Fioraso’s wide ranging bill
In early May, the ruling Socialist Party’s higher education and research minister Geneviève Fioraso unveiled a broad reform plan, part of which proposed to offer more courses in English at universities that are linked with foreign institutions, or which have financial backing from the European Union.
The bill has many aspects, some controversial, others less so. Some of the proposed reforms include:
- New two-to-three year student visas whose expiration would depend on the type of diploma students are working towards;
- Easing academic and administrative paperwork for international students;
- Loosening employment laws to permit an easier transition from the classroom to the French job market;
- Simplifying higher education and research structures;
- Increasing access to universities;
- Facilitating French language lessons for students from non-French speaking countries;
- Enabling a rapid build-up of affordable student housing in Paris;
- Making greater efforts to cut dropout rates, currently at 36%;
- Introduce more bachelor’s degrees for technical subjects;
- Attaching the year-long preparatory classes for the highly selective grandes écoles to universities.
A bit more contentious was Fioraso’s plan to increase the size of universities’ administrative councils – a move seen by some as an effort to please trade unions by placing more staff in universities. That part of the plan has been harshly criticised by university administrators concerned about losing power.
Edouard Husson, former vice-chancellor of the universities of Paris who led the city’s reorganisation of higher education under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, told Times Higher Education that the new governance rule “is not a bad one”. Husson, now the dean of ESCP Europe Business School, explained, “What was lacking was a kind of appropriation [by staff] of the reforms. We need to find support within universities for the changes.”
However, Husson argues that the reforms didn’t tackle the three most pressing problems in French higher education:
- the lack of student tuition fees;
- lack of admissions selectivity;
- lack of support for graduates seeking employment.
Tuition fees at public universities are often less than €1000 a year, and entrance to most courses can be obtained with even marginal Baccalauréat exam results.
“The reforms will not change much until the lack of selectivity at the entrance to the first year is addressed,” Husson argues. Raising tuition fees should be considered as well: “Without the possibility of funding themselves, French universities will always be dependent on the ministry.”
However, it was the proposal to increase the use of English in universities that created the most negative reaction.
French law requires classes to be conducted in French, although a 1994 revision allows some non-francophone foreign students and teachers to hold a limited number of classes in English, which is already the case in the elite grandes écoles and top private business schools.
The proposal to increase the use of English was touted as a way to raise France’s profile in international higher education and allow it to better compete for the brightest international students.
The measure, which would also introduce lessons in languages other than English, aims to increase the number of foreign students at universities from 12% of the total to 15% by 2020.
Backers say the bill will have the added benefit of improving the employability of French youth. The measure is included in the Higher Education and Research law, known as ESR, that is due to take effect later this year.
However, some critics have said the bill is a sign of waning French international influence, while others have gone so far as to call it a “humiliation to French speakers,” and a “suicidal project” that will ruin long-running efforts to protect the French language.
Socialist MP Pouria Amirshahi broke ranks with his party and said that the law would probably not help attract more international students. He told France24:
“Higher education in France already enjoys considerable strengths, like low costs and its focus on culture. France has no calling to become a destination for English language learning.”
Amirshahi’s characterisations of the bill were hardly the most severe. A statement from the right-wing political party Union Populaire Républicaine said, in part: “We are being asked nothing less than to scupper one of the greatest world languages and to bray in the language of McDonald’s to satisfy the aims of profitability of a global oligarchy…”
English inevitably making inroads in France
Passions surrounding the issue are high, to say the least. English, due to its pervasive usage in science, business, and, to a growing extent, international academia, has been displacing French for some time. In many French business schools and graduate level universities, one-quarter to one-third of classes are already taught in English.
The private Paris business school HEC utilises English for selected classes. HEC lecturer Kevyn Yong takes a nuanced view of the language controversy. He recently told the French website thelocal.fr: “I can understand both sides of the argument. I do believe that the French universities would have a greater impact globally if they allowed more courses to be taught in English.”
He also added that French language proficiency would, at least in his opinion, always have an important place:
“It’s a big advantage to be bilingual. If you can do your research in English and speak French that is an amazing skill and a real advantage for French-speaking academics.”
And yet the encroachment of English continues, and not just in France. ICEF Monitor has previously reported on the spread of English-medium instruction around the world, and the Institute of International Education has written a briefing paper on English-taught master’s programmes in Europe.
France still a top destination
The French government has already made other moves designed to boost inbound mobility.
One of its first initiatives was to loosen residency and employment rules for non-European students and university leavers. President François Hollande also fulfilled a campaign promise to repeal the “Guéant circular,” a law that limited the chances for foreign post-secondary students to stay in the country after their studies.
Minister Fioraso, when speaking of her proposals, stresses a new focus on cooperation with developing countries. “France must continue to attract the world’s best students,” she said, “but should also diversify their geographical origin. We must look to emerging markets [such as] the BRICs.” Just last month, France and China signed eleven agreements to strengthen higher education and research partnerships as well as student mobility between the two countries. Fioraso also said France needed to increase efforts toward countries investing in research such as South Korea. She further warned:
“President [Barack] Obama has launched an ambitious policy to attract scientists. Major English-speaking countries are taking the lead in foreign exchange programmes. France cannot sit back and ignore these developments.”
While Fioraso’s English language proposals have caused a storm, she tries to characterise it as a tempest in a teapot. She claims that even if her proposals were to be adopted, less than 1% of all university classes would be conducted in English, specifically those in science, math and business. And foreign students would still study French.
On the other hand, Fioraso has not helped herself by making the precise opposite claim that her proposals are almost redundant because of the number of English language courses already available in France. In addition to approximately 400 master’s programmes offered in English,
“Today there are 790 training courses mainly in English,” she has said, “and nobody is shouting.”
Regardless of the pronouncements of all involved, France remains a popular study destination and has the ability to continue to maintain that status. Last year, there were nearly 290,000 foreign students in France, which represented 12.3% of the overall student population. About 70,000 PhD students are studying there; 41% of them from abroad. Foreign students frequently stay on after they have finished their studies: 24% of the 6.4 million PhD (or equivalent) graduates living in France are foreign.