“Exhilarating” is the word Donatienne Hissard uses to describe the past six months since she began her new role as director-general at Campus France.
Hissard brings to the role 22 years of diverse experience in multilateral and bilateral diplomacy, and international cooperation. Most recently, she was assistant director for sustainable development at the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs in France.
Having started her career there in the Asia division and later working as assistant advisor in cultural cooperation and action at the French embassy in China, Hissard is a specialist in East Asia and China relations.
Now, she is making it one of her goals to win back Asian markets France has lost – mostly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Hissard, in France, student visas from Asia have dropped by 50% since 2018.
“I think we are at a turning point,” says Hissard, who believes, when it comes to the Chinese market, it is less about how to act towards China and more about what Chinese students want to gain from their studies.
“When I was posting in China, I remember the enthusiasm and interest around the ‘haigui’ – meaning sea turtles – people who study abroad and come back to China to develop the country. At the time, those people were at the centre of the attention of the government.
“Now, what we hear from China is that maybe students find curricula that is fully satisfactory to them inside their country. Maybe they are not so fond anymore of going abroad. Even the attitude of the Chinese government has changed towards that.
She tells The PIE that in recent times Campus France has heard that for Chinese universities, it isn’t as important as before to be on top of even the Shanghai ranking – something she calls “quite paradoxical”.
Hissard believes we may be seeing the very beginning of a huge shift in China’s position, and even though she is battling to win this market, she also welcomes a more diversified landscape, noting an increase in students from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India – with a 9.5% increase in Indian students applying to study in France this academic year.
Another focal point for Hissard has been – and continues to be – the war in Ukraine.
“The government has asked us to act as a facilitator and to centralise requests from displaced students.”
To do so, Campus France set up a web platform to facilitate the connection between Ukrainian students and institutions. Since then, France has welcomed 1,600 new students from Ukraine.
In 2018, France set a target to reach half a million international students by 2027. Now, sitting at just over 400,000 Hissard tells The PIE, “We are on track – and that was not a given. We were rather thrilled with the numbers when they came out.
“We are on track – and that was not a given”
“But what we have learnt is that our competitors are also thriving and getting back to normal as before the pandemic.”
France is currently ranked 7th in the world according to the the Times Higher Education ranking, but to Hissard, this achievement is just another reason to continue Campus France’s efforts to spread the word on what students can gain from a study abroad experience in France.
“What we are going to do is adapt our communication and promotion strategy, in particular customise it more according to the different needs of the different regions of the world.”
Hissard thinks it may be beneficial for Campus France to be less institutional in its approach and instead “talk to the younger public that is not so fond of official websites”.
As part of its Rendez-vous en France campaign, launched in 2021, a new motto is on the card for Campus France – ‘Skills and friends for life’. Hissard is keen to promote the potential academic excellence students can gain but also the offer of a unique life experience.
“We believe that studying in France is about acquiring the know-how to succeed and also about making friends – and making friends with a country which is still an influential country in the world.“
In 2020, a fairly dramatic rise in administrative fees for non-EU students was introduced, which Hissard admits has been “a big reform in France”.
“The fear at the time when those [administrative fees] were adopted was that maybe students from poorer countries would have difficulties coming to France, and especially students from Africa – with Africa being one of the major zones of interest for our country.”
Despite this, the number of Sub-Saharan African students in France has increased by 40% in the last five years, making it the top origin country for incoming students, says Hissard.
“The cost of studies in France compared with the quality of our curriculum is still very, very interesting, especially if you look at the very top destination countries like the US and the UK, where, of course, it’s much more expensive to study.”