First steps towards an internationalisation strategy

France Stratégie, the French government’s arm for national strategies, last week released the first ever comprehensive report on the state of French higher education institutions’ international activities (report in French here).

The report is aptly subtitled “the urgency of a strategy” as we can read between the lines how far France lags behind higher education leaders, despite a growth of initiatives in the past 10 years.

The main findings are:
  • • With 600 programmes delivered across the whole range of disciplines and levels, French institutions are indeed active abroad.
  • • They are present in 140 physical locations, including 40 branch campuses.
  • • 37,000 students worldwide attend these programmes.
  • • The main target countries are Morocco, Vietnam, China, Lebanon and Tunisia.
  • • Almost 70% of the offering is at the masters and postgraduate levels.
  • • 69% of the courses are delivered in French.
  • • Engineering schools are the most active, followed by business schools.
Outside of this positive news, the report indicates that most of the strategies used by French institutions are more opportunistic than part of a clear strategy and that underinvestment in international strategies is worrying.

The report suggests four different strategies:
  • • An outreach strategy based on scientific and academic diplomacy, with the state and its diplomatic network supporting institutions’ strategies more/better;
  • • Deployment of a research strategy, focusing internationalisation on centres of research excellence worldwide;
  • • A market appropriation strategy aimed at seizing opportunities abroad, although the report notes that higher education institutions would need to adapt some of their offerings to be ready for this;
  • • A digital diversification strategy that develops a proper online offering that could be attractive for international students.
While the publication of this report – finally – is to be commended, questions remain and despite being cautious, the report remains rather optimistic.

Indeed, the influence of higher education institutions abroad is linked to the influence of their country on the international scene. Some 120 years ago, French higher education institutions were the most international of all and that corresponded to the last peak of France’s diplomatic influence.

It is not surprising that the countries where French higher education institutions are the most active are former colonies or protectorates – Morocco, Vietnam, Lebanon and Tunisia.

Most of the success of the United Kingdom and United States higher education institutions internationally lies in the remaining post-decolonisation influence of Britain on its Commonwealth (and Australia was able to ride on this too) and the predominance of the US on the international scene for the past 80 years.

In the same vein, the rise of China and India as international higher education providers, which is not emphasised enough in the report, corresponds to a clear 'soft power' policy implemented by these countries.

Catching up with competitors

Overall, there are indeed more and more 'South-to-South', 'East-to-South' and even 'Africa-to-Africa' initiatives that could make the challenge for French institutions even more difficult. And so far, the French diplomatic network has been more focused on developing state-sponsored research activities than on promoting market-based initiatives.

Furthermore, the growth markets are obviously already the playground of our competitors, some with clear established positions in Southeast Asia or in the Middle East that will be very difficult to catch up with.

The suggested countries to target are not also the most obvious ones: Nigeria and Ethiopia, for example, are being explored very carefully by our competitors because of the political situations there, but most of the initiatives are in fact in more stable Ghana and Rwanda, which are not mentioned in the report.

Many French higher education institutions are now following the path taken by UK or Australian universities but without the same resources. UK and Australian institutions mainly went abroad to source students (incoming or in-country) because they lacked financial resources. They were hungry. French institutions, comfortably established in their national market, did not feel the need for extra resources.

It is only very recently, now that the national market has become more difficult and more competitive and now that public money is scarcer than ever, that they realise that international expansion (in countries, online, etc) is the main way to increase their budgets. But becoming internationally focused requires investment and this is where French higher education institutions are structurally at a disadvantage.

Public universities struggle with funding and even the largest French business school has an annual budget several times lower than the average Australian university. Going abroad is costly and represents a risk – many Australian or UK offshore operations have failed – that is beyond the financial reach of most French higher education institutions.

It is often ignored, but part of the costs come also from the requirements of the local accreditation bodies, which in many countries – I can speak for Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates or Singapore – are very stringent in terms of assurance of learning and student support.

Change of focus

As is mentioned in the report, French higher education institutions will also need a change of focus. The bulk of the international market is largely at the bachelor level, and this will be the case for a while, whereas France has focused mainly on the masters level. For instance, an engineering degree is at the masters level in France, not a four-year bachelor degree as in many other countries.

The report also points out that most of the courses abroad are delivered in French, whereas the largest slice of the pie is for degrees in English.

Also, UK, US and Australian institutions developed their online activities very early, an extreme example being the 283,000 students registered for the Oxford Brookes University ACCA course, whereas this is still considered in France as an optional or side activity.

Moreover, it would have been a good idea to publish the full list of international operations to be able to compare it with existing databases. For example, the report mentions 40 branch campuses, whereas C-Bert, which is generally considered as the best source of information on international branch campuses, finds only 15 branch campuses for France. This seems to be a matter of definition.

What can be done?

My opinion is that the answer lies somewhere in-between the four strategies suggested by the report but that, because of a lack of resources, including staff with significant hands-on experience in transnational education, French higher education institutions will need to get real, committed support from our diplomatic network.

What is left of this network is still very active in the cultural or language areas, but it would be useful to go beyond activities at the Alliance Française and wine or cinema festivals and to consider, as most of our competitors do, higher education as an immediate and future source of direct income and economic influence for France.

François Therin is the director of the Ecole de Management Leonard de Vinci, a business school in Paris, France. He has lived and worked in Canada, France, Australia, Oman and Malaysia. Views expressed here are his own. You can follow him on twitter @ftherin.