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France: court ruling leaves questions around tuition fee implementation

International students in France may be saved from a hike in tuition fees after the country’s Constitutional Council ruled that free access to public education is a constitutional right.

So far, the changes have been met by strong opposition from student bodies. Photo: wikimedia

The fees rose to €2,770 for bachelor degrees and to €3,770 for a master’s or a doctoral degree

The case was brought by student and professional associations in July after the French government announced plans to increase annual fees for anyone who came from outside of the EU. 

“Tuition fees in the context of obtaining a national degree must remain at a reasonable level so that it can be supportive of all”

The fees, which kicked in this September, rose from €170 to €2,770 for bachelor degrees and €243 per year to €3,770 for a master’s or a doctoral degree.

So far, the changes have been met by strong opposition from student bodies including the National Union of Students of France; the Association of Peruvian Students in France; the Federation of Students Interns and Senegalese of France; the Association of Guinean Youth in France; the Association of Egyptian Students in France; SNESUP-FSU; FERC CGT; FERC Sup; Student Solidarity • e • s and FO ESR. 

In a joint statement, the organisations welcomed the Constitutional Court’s decision. 

“The decree from the 19th of April is illegal,” the statement read.

“These measures are manifestly contradictory to the principle of free public education, which implies that the cost of tuition fees in the context of obtaining a national degree must remain at a reasonable level so that it can be supportive of all without creating an excessive financial burden [that] would dissuade participants from accessing higher education.”

Another key outcome of the ruling is that the government cannot raise tuition fees without a judge’s approval.

However, obstacles still remain for those who are opposed to the government’s new fees.

France’s supreme administrative court Conseil d’Etat – the Council of State – acts as legal advisor to the executive branch and as the supreme court in France. It is set to make its own decision on the fees in the coming months.

“The ruling of the Conseil Constitutionnel – Constitutional Council – does not mention the differentiated tuition fees for non-EU students.

“We are waiting for the Conseil d’Etat ruling about it, in the months to come,” a spokesperson from Campus France told The PIE News.

While the Constitutional Council’s ruling specified that the constitutional right to a free education applies for higher education, it also stated that universities can charge “modest” fees that take into account how much a student can afford. The exact meaning of the word “modest” has not been defined and is causing concern amongst student organisations.

Some French universities have resisted the fee increases and used legal loopholes to avoid implementing them. One such University is Lyon 2.

“We wanted to avoid [the new fees] as far as possible by exonerating all those who would have been subjected to them,” the university’s president Nathalie Dompnier told France 24.

Some French universities have resisted the fee increases and used legal loopholes to avoid implementing them

In 2018, Emmanuel Macron’s government announced measures to attract international students, including a simplified visa application process. However, the plans also included the fee hikes for non-EU students.

During the academic year of 2017 to 2018, 340,000 foreign students came to France to study, and as part of France’s bid to attract 500,000 international students to its shores by 2027, Campus France recently announced a new international campaign to give a voice to those who have chosen France for their studies.

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