Nine out of 10 past, present and future students from abroad would recommend France as a study destination, according to new research carried out before the introduction of controversial tightened restrictions on foreign graduates working in France.
A quarter of foreign students who graduate stay on to work, according to the survey for CampusFrance, the government agency that promotes French higher education internationally.
The bodies representing university presidents, the grandes écoles and engineeering schools have all made clear their anxieties over the restrictions. These could affect thousands of graduates who previously would have been recruited by French companies with international interests, but who are being refused permits to stay and work in France, even when they have been offered a job.
In 2010, more than 280,000 foreigners came to study in France which, according to most recent figures, is the fourth most popular host country for international students after the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, and is just ahead of Germany.
CampusFrance said the survey of nearly 21,000 foreign students was conducted to identify the expectations of those coming to France and their reasons for choosing to study in the country, their level of satisfaction and the benefits of their experiences. The information will be used to improve the attractiveness of France as a study destination.
Reasons for choosing France included quality of education, knowledge of the language, cultural interest and the [relatively low] cost of studies, the survey found. Among negative aspects were the country's high cost of living, bureaucracy, housing problems and difficulties integrating.
The online survey, carried out by TNS Sofres between March and May 2011, was divided between young people planning their studies abroad (the great majority, numbering 17,952), students currently studying in France (1,697) and those who had completed their studies (1,082). They were further categorised by geographical region: Africa, North America, Latin America, Asia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Maghreb and the Middle East.
Reasons for choosing France varied according to the region from which respondents came. Those from the Maghreb and Africa put most value on the quality of education, reputation of higher education institutions and the value of French degrees; while Europeans and those from Asia and the Americas placed greater emphasis on the 'enriching international experience'.
But the satisfaction expressed by 91% of respondents who were currently studying or had completed their studies in France was tempered by criticisms. The high cost of living and the complex administrative formalities were each cited by 53% of students; 45% were dissatisfied with accommodation; and a third said they had difficulties integrating into France.
Among the inquiry's findings were that a quarter of respondents who had completed their studies had stayed on in France to work, and 36% of these (9% of the graduates surveyed) were still there after two years.
But the inquiry related to those who graduated before the controversial circular issued by Interior Minister Claude Guéant on 31 May tightened employment regulations for non-European foreigners in France, including students.
While Guéant is determined to reduce immigration and wants foreign graduates to return to their own countries, he is at odds with Laurent Wauquiez, minister for higher education and research, and Valérie Pécresse, Wauquiez's predecessor who is now budget minister. They have made known their wish to attract talented foreign students and educate a future international élite.
Guéant has said he would "pragmatically" consider solutions to problems case by case, and the Conférence des Grandes Ecoles has sent a number of students' dossiers to the interior ministry for consideration.
Meanwhile opposition to the circular continues to grow, with students' organisations mobilising against it, including a new action group, the Collectif du 31 Mai, which has launched a petition. The socialist vice-president of the senate, Bariza Khiari, is submitting a resolution demanding its withdrawal.
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