France is spearheading a new higher education plan aimed to make it a more attractive destination for foreign students — but also a more expensive one. The move to raise foreign tuition fees has sparked protests, especially when it comes to African students who make up nearly half the country's foreign student body.
In many ways, the University of Paris-Est Creteil, or UPEC, is the face of today's France — and of France's reputation abroad. Nearly 10 percent of its student body is international.
So it's no surprise its administration has been closely tracking the government's new higher education plan. Dubbed "Welcome to France," the strategy aims to boost foreign student numbers from about 300,000 to half-a-million by 2027. UPEC supports many aspects of the plan. Except one: a sharp tuition hike next academic year.
No increase here
Laurent Thievenet is UPEC's vice president for international relations. He says a large part of its international student body comes from North and sub-Saharan Africa. They can't afford a tuition increase.
Even with the tuition increase, French fees are much lower than elsewhere in the West. But like a number of other French universities, UPEC has opted not to raise costs for foreign students. Even so, some like Nanto Ralibera, a graduate student from Madagascar, are worried.
Ralibera said he was shocked to hear about the tuition hike, which would have amounted to about 15 times more than what he pays now. It's not part of the budget of students like himself when they left their countries.
Katarina Vuckovic from Serbia is also on a tight budget.
"I definitely have the impression that part of the strategy of the French government will not contribute to the attraction as they want," she said.
Vuckovich says she's happy about the quality of education here. But she says Serbian students like herself may not be afford to study in France if tuition costs are raised.
Popular but losing ground
France is the world's top non-Anglophone destination for foreign students and fourth overall. It's home to the iconic Sorbonne university and prestigious business schools. A big draw is also the country's inexpensive tuition. Still France has been losing ground in recent years.
"We are competitive — we are very competitive. … The problem is that we receive a lot of students, but maybe we don't receive them very well," said Olivier Rollot, a French journalist specializing in higher education.
"When you come here from all over the world, you expect to live like in America, in big university campuses. In France it's not like that. So maybe students are a bit disappointed," he said.
The government plan aims to tackle some of the hurdles by simplifying student visas, offering better housing and more French language classes. It also aims to expand France's educational presence in Africa.
Experts say the country's higher education strategy serves larger goals, by expanding French influence and interests abroad. Over the decades, presidents and business leaders, especially from France's former African colonies, earned university degrees here.
"It's important to get the best students that tomorrow will be in charge of their countries," Rollot said.
France may also profit from potential barriers to studying elsewhere, including tougher immigration restrictions in the United States and uncertainty over Brexit.
The government aims to increase scholarships to offset tuition hikes for the neediest students. But in today's competitive environment, that may not be enough. A recent study by Campus France, which represents French education globally, found a sharp drop so far in African enrollment since the plan was announced.
"It's not a problem for Chinese students or Indian students or American students to pay more," Rollot said. "It's a problem for African students to pay more."
Rollot says the best and brightest students risk going elsewhere. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for example, offer attractive scholarships.
While aiming to attract more students from other parts of the world, UPEC wants to expand its presence in Africa, including through collaborations with African universities. UPEC's Thievenet says its mission aims to contribute to Africa's development and to a more balanced relationship with France.