What is education worth? Should France be hiking its university fees for foreign students?

Recently, in France, not just the gilets jaunes have been protesting, but also students. Why? Foreign students have just been informed their fees are going to be lifted by around 11 times.

The change will see international students who are not EEA nationals – including the UK after Brexit – paying €2,770 for undergraduate studies and €3,770 at master’s and doctoral level. This is a considerable jump from the €170 per year charged currently for undergraduate programs, €243 for master’s programs, and €380 for PhDs.

At the same time, around 25% of foreign students will be given scholarships, to ensure that the poorest are still able to study in France. About 15,000 scholarships will be awarded, and will prioritise students from North Africa and from Sub-Saharan Africa.

unesco_5_eng.jpgManos Antoninis, Director of the GEM Report took part in a debate on France 24 on the issue (watch here or below). Is this an unfair policy? Why the change?

manos fr 24

At the end of the day, higher education has become a business: countries compete. Yes, universities recruit international students to diversify the student body and improve their global rankings, but the main driver is income.

France raised 4.5 billion last year from international students, when countries half the size of France or less like Canada and the UK raise over 5 times as much, as we showed in the 2019 GEM Report.


Those protesting should also be aware that, even after the increase in fees next year, studying in France as a foreign student will still be cheap comparable to other countries, such as the UK or USA.

And, while cost may be a deciding factor for students choosing where to study, other factors also play a part: the availability of university places at home, the relative quality of education at home and abroad, and language: half of all international students move to five English-speaking countries. The majority of France’s international students come from Francophone countries in Africa, but their share of international students in France has recently grown, in part because they increasingly offer postgraduate programmes in English.

The opportunity to gain work experience is also a growing driver of student mobility. In 2011–2014, Indian student numbers fell by nearly 50% in the United Kingdom and increased by 70%
in Australia after UK policy changes limited post-graduation work visas.

If France hopes the level of international students will not decrease with this hike in fees, it needs to spend more: countries that spend more also manage to attract more students. a study of 18 European countries showed that a 1% increase in expenditure per student led to an average 2% increase in incoming students.

Some argue that the change in policy will mean the poorest students wont be able to come to France anymore. Already, only the very wealthy go abroad to study. In some countries such as Cameroon, Senegal and Togo, not even a single student from among the poorest families go to university.  Even in Tunisia, only one in ten of youth from the poorest families get the chance.

This means that scholarships need to be very well targeted to not further exacerbate inequalities, as we showed in a policy paper last year – Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind.

This requires the scholarships not to be based on merit, but on need, a nuance that is hard given the difficulties in evaluating need on a case by case basis.

If the concern in these protests is over whether or not the poorest will suffer or not, thought could be given to the connections between education and development too: should France invest in scholarships or in supporting the quality of tertiary education in Africa?



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