High spending, low fees – And lower salaries

France scores well in its expenditure on higher education students, in the proportion of its population who are graduates and in the number of international students who choose to study there, according to the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2013. But the financial advantages a degree confers on employees are lower for French graduates than for their peers across the OECD, especially women.

From 2005 to 2010, the amount France spent on each primary, secondary and non-tertiary post-secondary pupil increased by only 5% compared to an OECD average of 10%. Spending on each higher education student, however, rose by 15% to an average of US$15,067, says the OECD country note on France.

This was more than the overall OECD average of US$13,528, but less than Canada, Denmark, the US, Sweden and Switzerland, which all spent more than US$18,000 per student.

French higher education receives relatively little funding from the private sector, which contributes 18% of finance compared to 32% in the OECD as a whole. In spite of France’s relatively high spending on higher education, student fees remain low compared to many other OECD countries.

For the 2012-13 year, university fees in France are €181 (US$236) for a licence (bachelor degree equivalent) and €250 for a masters course. In a third of the other countries surveyed, annual student fees were more than US$1,500.

The proportion of the French population with degrees has risen significantly during the past 30 years, where they represent 43% of 25- to 34-year-olds, compared to 19% of 55- to 64-year-olds. OECD averages are 39% and 24% respectively, but France scores below Korea, Japan, Canada and the Russian Federation, where more than 55% of today’s young adults are graduates of higher education.

More than 75% of French students who start a first degree course finish it, on a par with Australia, Denmark, Finland, Japan and Spain; and better than Hungary, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the US, where fewer than 60% of students succeed, says the note.

And while the French drop-out rate overall is lower than the OECD average, 14% of French students who abandon their university studies successfully switch to more technical courses.

The proportion of young people with doctorates in France equals the OECD average: 1.6% in 2011. As in Chile and Israel, more than 35% of doctorate holders in France specialise in a ‘hard’ science, compared to 23% across OECD countries. Furthermore, says the note, about a third of doctorate holders in France are from abroad, “which can indicate both the attractiveness of its courses for foreign students and a fear among national students to commit themselves”.

It also means a low rate of young postgraduates studying after the age of 25. While on average in OECD countries the percentage of young postgraduates aged 25-29 and still in education is 18%, in France it is only 7%. This compares badly with Austria, Denmark, Italy and Sweden, where the proportion is more than 25%.

A higher education qualification means higher salaries in the job market, and French graduates earn on average 47% more than non-graduates. But this is less than their peers in other OECD countries, whose degrees give them a financial advantage averaging 57%.

The situation is worse for French women graduates, who can expect a net advantage during their career of only 8.9%, against an OECD average of 11.5%, while French men gain 10.1%, compared to 13% across the OECD.

One profession where French graduates fare financially poorly is teaching. Primary and secondary schoolteachers’ statutory salaries are lower than the OECD average whether they are beginners or have up to 15 years’ experience. Only those at the top of the salary scale earn more than the OECD average – and teachers need to have 34 years of service to reach this level, compared to 24 years on average in other OECD countries.

During the past 30 years the number of students studying in a country other than their own has risen from 800,000 in 1975 to 4.3 million in 2011, notes the report. France remains an attractive country for foreign students and they represent nearly 12% of all students in France.

Indeed, France is among the top five destinations for international students, equal third with Australia and Germany, each with 6%, after the US at 17% and Britain at 13%.