France is a popular destination for foreign students, placing it 5th in the world among host countries, with 385,000 students in 2019. It is also the first non-English speaking country to welcome non-European students, mainly from Africa or Asia. This mobility represents nearly 4.65 billion euros in daily expenses, school fees and transport costs.
Representing a major economic impact, the government wishes to boost the hosting of foreign students, with the objective of more than 500,000 foreign students enrolled in higher education by 2027. However, the covid-19 crisis has very clearly slowed down France's momentum. According to estimates by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the rate of students from Asia and the Americas has fallen by 40%. According to Campus France, nearly 20% of foreign students are missing this start of the school year.
The health crisis has delayed the issuance of diplomas, and disrupted the organization of consular services for the issuance of visas: only 65,000 student visas were requested in 2020 (with only 45,000 issued) against 110,000 in 2019. All this, despite the announcement of the government to prioritize the processing of student visa applications. Also, logistical difficulties and the risk of local or territorial re-confinements have pushed students to postpone or cancel their international mobility.
Higher education institutions have therefore had to adapt while trying to maintain their international appeal. Colleges and private schools are the most affected by the current situation, as admission fees for non-EU students can very quickly triple or even be multiplied by 5, compared to the fees for a student from the EU . These figures can reach up to 10,000 euros for a bachelor's degree, or 18,000 euros for a master's degree. These tuition fees constitute a substantial part of the annual budget of these schools. In addition to the financial consideration, the share of foreign students within a school is taken into account in international rankings, and contributes to its global attractiveness, attracting even more foreign students and leading to a virtuous circle .
To make up for the lack of foreign students, the schools have relied on more flexibility, by setting up staggered schedules and only courses. They are also reviewing the examination methods, giving more emphasis to knowledge checks, rather than final exams. However, this “hybrid” form of learning has its limits. Indeed, some foreign students state that they have paid their admission fees before being informed that their re-entry would only be done online. Having chosen to stay at home, or not having had their visa, they face a time difference, some of which are very important to attend classes. For those who have managed to get a flight to France, to find accommodation and even to start lessons, they find themselves disappointed not to be able to benefit from the expat experience specific to international exchanges.
This transformation of pedagogy, although beneficial for the enrollment rates of foreign students in schools, does not always seem to facilitate integration and socialization. Also, these solutions are sufficient in the short term, but if this situation persists, what about the impact of this lack of students on the outreach of institutions? Also, a large majority of foreign students who have obtained their diplomas then stay to work in France. However, if the courses are now done at a distance, will this still be the case? Student mobility must therefore be rethought, and schools are already considering shorter mobility, while further developing communication and distance training tools, knowing that they do not solve everything.