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French court ruling puts planned fee increase in doubt

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A planned fee increase for non-EU students in France has been set aside by a recent court ruling
  • Further court deliberations will now be required in order to determine tuition rates for students from outside the European Union

Open access to public higher education is a deeply held value in France, so much so that French students attend university virtually for free, as do students from throughout the European Union.

Until this year, these same provisions applied to foreign students from outside the European Union as well. However, the French government has moved to increase fees for non-EU students as of this academic year with planned annual tuition fees of €2,770 for undergraduates and €3,770 for those pursuing advanced degrees. This represents a significant increase from the fees otherwise charged to visiting students (€170 per year for undergraduate studies and €243 for master’s degrees), but even at that France would remain an extremely affordable destination for students from outside the EU.

In any event, the planned fee increase has found itself in direct conflict with the idea of making higher education accessible to all, and it has been fiercely opposed by French student associations and universities alike. A number of higher education institutions have indicated they would not implement the fee increase. By some reports fewer than ten of the roughly 80 public universities in the country have implemented the fee increase to this point.

In the midst of that debate within the higher education system, a coalition of several student groups – including the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF) and unions representing Peruvian, Senegalese, Egyptians, and other national groups – brought the matter before the France’s Conseil d’Etat earlier this year. The Conseil d’Etat is the country’s highest court for issues of administrative law, but it subsequently referred the matter to a parallel body – the Conseil Constitutionnel – which is charged with determining the constitutionality of proposed government policies and laws.

The Conseil Constitutionnel was asked to rule on the constitutionality of the planned fee increase for non-EU students. In a 11 October ruling, the court found that the process by which the fee increase was established was constitutional. However, the court also determined that the principle of free access to education is enshrined in the French constitution, and that this applies to higher education as well. Commenting on the finding, the US Library of Congress observed, “While the principle of tuition-free education has long been accepted as applying to primary and secondary education, this appears to be the first time that a French high court has explicitly extended it to higher education.”

The student unions that brought the legal action were quick to declare victory in the matter. A joint 11 October press release asserts that the government’s proposed fee policy is “illegal”, and adds, “Our respective organisations remain convinced that this measure is manifestly contrary to the principle of free public education which assumes that the level of tuition fees in the context of obtaining a national diploma must remain at a reasonable level so as to can be supported by all without generating an excessive financial burden that would deter or discourage access to higher education.”

There is, however, a further question remaining in the ruling from the court. The Conseil Constitutionnel clearly said that the principle of free higher education need not prohibit the government from establishing “modest” tuition fees, provided that the financial means of students were taken into account. In a related public release, the Conseil said that it “considers that it is up to the competent ministers to set, under the supervision of the judge, the [tuition rates] in compliance with the requirements of free public higher education and equal access to education.”

The court did not elaborate on its definition of modest fees, and the question – and remaining arguments on the matter – will now turn on what may be considered “modest” in the context of French higher education. University leaders and student groups alike are now looking for further clarity on the matter, which will now likely come only from a further court ruling – especially as the Conseil Constitutionnel has explicitly said that a further consideration by a judge will be required for any fee increases.

Indeed, the matter is now likely to return to the Conseil d’Etat, which is expected to make a further finding regarding fee levels in the coming months. Now that the concept of such a judicial review of fee increases has been mandated by the court’s 11 October ruling, “With this constitutional safeguard, it will no longer be [possible] for the government to make widespread and significant increases to tuition fees in higher education,” said a related statement from UNEF.

The University Lyon 2 is one of the institutions that has not yet implemented the announced fee increase for this year. Speaking to France 24 recently, the university’s President, Nathalie Dompnier, expressed the uncertainty that now faces the French system. “There are still some big unanswered questions,” she said. “Does ‘modest’ refer to the charges of €170 or €243 euros already in place for all students, or is it something else? I hope that €3,770 will not be considered a modest sum. It’s a sum that can pay for a student’s meals for a whole year or more. No student aid mechanisms will cover that amount and it is much more than anyone can receive through housing subsidies.”

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