Reforms aim to attract more foreign PhD students

One of the first acts of the socialist-led government when it came to power a year ago was to repeal an order by its predecessors that had tightened up residence and employment rules for non-European students and graduates in France.

Now the government is going further, introducing a series of badly needed reforms to attract the brightest foreign students to study in France, and encourage them to stay on to work and contribute to the country’s international competitiveness.

Under the so-called Guéant circular of 31 May 2011, many non-European foreign graduates who had studied in France and then found high-level jobs in French firms and laboratories were ordered to leave the country.

This caused dismay and prompted condemnation in the academic world – from students to university presidents – as well as among employers and many politicians.

Repeal of the circular on ‘professional immigration’, named after Claude Guéant, the right-wing interior minister who introduced it, was one of François Hollande’s pledges during his presidential campaign.

It was one he kept and, symbolically, the order was annulled by Guéant’s successor, Manuel Valls, a year to the day after its introduction.

PhD students in France

In recent times, France has slipped in the rankings of most popular countries for international students, from third place (it claimed) to fifth.

But the nation remains, with Germany, one of the two most popular non-Anglophone countries for foreigners – and, unlike in many other host countries, fees in France are low: for a doctorate, only €380 (US$500) a year.

About 70,000 PhD students are studying in France, of whom 41% are from abroad. Many of them traditionally stay after they have finished their studies – 24% of the 6.4 million PhD (or equivalent) graduates living in France are foreign.

According to the Confédération des Jeunes Chercheurs, or CJC, the role of foreigners “in the scientific production of our country is crucial and has a major impact on the quality of French research”.

A quarter of foreign PhD students are from North Africa and 19% from the European Union. Other nationalities well represented are Chinese, Brazilians, Mexicans and Russians. But students from major scientific countries such as the US, Japan and South Korea are rarely found in French laboratories.

Foreign students are more likely to study at the doctoral level than the French – 12% compared with only 3% respectively in 2011, according to the French Ministry for Higher Education and Research.

The percentage varies depending on where the students are from. While more than 15% of students from Asia and America are enrolled in doctoral courses, only 11% of those from Sub-Saharan Africa are.

Life not easy for foreign PhDs

But while academe and industry appreciate the value of having large numbers of highly qualified foreigners working in France, the bureaucratic complexity makes life very difficult for them.

A CJC survey in 2010 noted: “These young researchers come to France above all for professional reasons and for the quality of French scientific research, but they are confronted with a certain number of difficulties.”

The inquiry involved 1,300 young foreign researchers and revealed “a reality on the ground [that was] often disastrous on many levels”.

Worst was the bureaucracy and lack of information they experienced when dealing with embassies abroad and the prefectures in France that controlled their residence rights. Particularly problematic was obtaining a long-term visa – which is essential for opening a bank account, travel, and getting a housing allowance and social security.

Fewer than one young foreign researcher in two had a contract of employment, depriving them of medical coverage; many had problems obtaining a residence permit; and there was a serious lack of information about administrative procedures. Many who had obtained a work contract were issued with an inappropriate student permit.

The CJC concluded: “France is not regarded as a welcoming country for young foreign researchers”, even though foreigners represented more than a third of PhD students.

In addition to a "Kafkaesque administrative reception" – with which less than a quarter were satisfied – more than half of young foreign researchers had difficulties with healthcare, housing and feeding themselves, and sometimes they experienced disgraceful working conditions.

“Only the scientific quality of the teams and facilities is valued,” said the CJC. It found that a third of those who had no work permit, access to healthcare or scientific residence permit wanted to remain in France to work, compared with the 56% who did not suffer such handicaps.

Reforms to attract the brightest

Now the government has announced reforms aimed at attracting the world’s brightest students, especially from countries such as China and South Korea, to come to study and work in France.

During a visit with Valls to the international Cité U campus in Paris in April, Geneviève Fioraso, the minister for higher education and research, said: “We want to reaffirm that international students and researchers are an asset for France.

“The way they are welcomed to our country is important for the academic and scientific influence of France, but also for our competitiveness and for our political influence based on the spread of our language and our values throughout the world.”

To remain at the forefront of global academic competition, “France must continue to attract the best international students, but also diversify their geographical origin,” said Fioraso. “We must turn to the emerging countries, the BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India and China].

“But we must equally strengthen our links with Africa, where our higher education remains attractive, for it is also in exchanges with this continent, where China is already very present, that part of Europe’s economic development is playing out.”

She announced measures to improve foreign students’ conditions and experiences, and make it easier for graduates to move into France’s job market.

These measures include construction programmes for student housing; two- to three-year student visas, depending on the kind of degree concerned, to avoid the hassle of renewals; one-stop shops for simplified administrative and academic processes; and relaxed labour laws to allow highly educated foreign graduates easier access to employment in France.

A reform due to come into force this year will permit universities to teach some courses in languages other than French – notably English – which is currently banned.

Fioraso hopes this will persuade more bright, but so far non-French-speaking, foreign students to opt to study in France.