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Is the French tuition fees ruling a victory for foreign students?

Students protest in Lyon against a rise in university tuition fees for foreign students on December 13, 2018.
Students protest in Lyon against a rise in university tuition fees for foreign students on December 13, 2018. Jean-Philippe Ksiazek / AFP

France’s Constitutional Council ruled on Friday that free access to public higher education is a constitutional right, throwing into doubt a planned surge in tuition fees for foreigners studying at French universities. But questions remain over the fate of overseas students in France.

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The council, tasked with upholding the French constitution, ruled that “the constitutional requirement of free admission applies to public higher education” in the same way that free primary and secondary education is guaranteed under French law.

The case was brought by a group of student and professional associations in July, following government plans unveiled in November last year to significantly raise the amount students from outside France and the EU must pay to attend French universities.

Whereas before such students paid the same minimal tuition fees as those from France and the EU – €170 a year for a bachelor’s degree and €243 for a master’s – those fees have been hiked to €2,770 and €3,770 respectively.

The government’s decision was met with ire by both students and educational institutions and many universities have used legal loopholes to avoid implementing it. In fact, just seven out of 75 universities charged foreign students the new rates when they went into force in September.

“We wanted to avoid [the new fees] as far as possible by exonerating all those who would have been subjected to them,” Nathalie Dompnier, president of University Lyon 2, told FRANCE 24. Like other universities, Lyon 2 used a piece of 2013 legislation that allows institutions to exempt 10 percent of their students from tuition fees to avoid charging foreign students the higher rates.

Battle looms over ‘modest’ fees

But in regards to the Constitutional Council’s ruling, Dompnier says she is “unsure” what to make of it.

"The assertion of free admission for higher education is a crucial factor, but there are still some big unanswered questions,” she says.

Her main concern is a caveat included in the council’s ruling that states that “modest” tuition fees can still be levied, “taking into account, where appropriate, the financial capacity of students”.

“Does ‘modest’ refer to the charges of €170 or €243 euros already in place for all students, or is it something else?” wonders Dompnier.

Though the council’s ruling was a “historic” decision that provides a “solid base to advance the cause of foreign students ", Mélanie Luce, president of France’s national students’ union UNEF agrees that "the battle is now over the definition of 'modest'”.

“I hope that €3,770 will not be considered a modest sum,” she says. “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.”

Safeguard

However, the council also ruled that the government cannot raise tuition fees without a judge’s approval, a clear victory for student unions.

"With this constitutional safeguard, it will no longer be [possible] for the executive to make widespread and significant increases to tuition fees in higher education," UNEF said.

“We cannot give the government unlimited leeway and allow it to make decrees by stealth without public debate in the National Assembly and the Senate,” added Luce.

Attention now turns to France’s supreme administrative court, the Council of State, which is expected to make its own decision on fees for foreign students in the coming months and, it is hoped, will clear up any ambiguities in the council’s ruling.

"In the meantime, we are asking universities to maintain the exemption of fees for foreign students this year and next," says Luce, noting that the hike in fees has been met with “great repudiation” by the majority of the academic community.

"No one at universities has supported this measure: neither university presidents, nor students, nor teachers, nor staff," she says. “Whether by legal decision or by decision of the government, we want to this decree annulled and an end to these discriminatory measures."

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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