Brexit, COVID, Ukraine war drive student mobility to France

African countries have become key drivers of student mobility to France, according to datasets published by Campus France, the national agency that promotes French higher education internationally and welcomes foreign students and researchers in the country.

Last year, 11 out of the top 25 countries with the highest representation of foreign students in France were in Africa. These African countries had about 146,000 or 40% of the total 365,000 foreign students that were enrolled in tertiary institutions in France.

Morocco, with 44,933 students, was the country with the highest number of foreign students in France in 2021, followed by Algeria with 29,333. Senegal was in fifth position with 14,566 students below China (27,950) and Italy (16,482).

According to the 2022 figures edition of Campus France’s key figures of student mobility in France, or Chiffres clés: La mobilité étudiante dans le monde, in the past five years, international students from Sub-Saharan Africa in France have increased by 41%.

Highlighting Africa’s rising numbers of international students in France, Judith Azema, the director of communication at Campus France, attributed the emerging scenario to a concerted effort to offer quality education and affordable tuition to international students.

Anglophone students

“Programmes taught in English have become more common in French universities and foreign students from anglophone countries, especially those from Sub-Saharan Africa, have been taking that advantage,” Azema told University World News.

She noted that, whereas enrolments from some global regions dipped marginally because of COVID-19, enrolments from North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa remained stable.

“North African countries led by Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia (13,162) are now sending 24% more students than they did five years ago, while those in Sub-Saharan Africa have, in total, been increasing their share by about 8% each year,” said Azema.

In this context, Azema said international mobility is back and, in France, it is being fuelled by three unprecedented crises, namely, the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit and the war in Ukraine.

Sustaining a steady flow

She noted that, during the pandemic, France remained open and kept numbers of international students stable, managing only a slight drop of 1% as compared with the previous year.

“Openness to student mobility during the pandemic enabled France to keep the flow of foreign students steady, effectively prefiguring a large-scale return of international students to the country,” said Azema.

There are also indicators that some students from Sub-Saharan Africa who fled the war in Ukraine, as well as others who are keen to study abroad, are finding their study destinations to be French tertiary institutions.

According to Campus France, most of the students from Sub-Saharan Africa come from Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire (10,357), Cameroon (8,329), Republic of Congo (6,421), Gabon (5,700), Madagascar (4,614), Benin (4,260) and Guinea (4,173).

For instance, in the past five years, Ivorian students in French tertiary institutions increased by 74% while their Congolese counterparts increased by 65%.

What is emerging is that France is becoming an attractive destination for students from Sub-Saharan Africa who have the choice and means to search for higher education outside the region and those who are under pressure caused by political and economic instability.

African students pursuing scholarships to study in French universities had been rising, a category that also includes students who had been willing to evade higher education systems in their home countries that are too often underfinanced and of uneven quality.

Although the bulk of Sub-Saharan African students are traditionally from the former French colonies in the region, Azema explained that plans are under way to attract outbound students from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Zimbabwe and other African countries that have huge volumes of post-secondary students. These are also the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa whose outbound students swelled in the past two decades.

France’s growing interest in Sub-Saharan Africa is based on the premise that the region has the fastest-growing student population globally. “It is expected that the region’s student population will reach about 22 million by 2027,” stated Campus France.

According to Campus France, much interest is being focused on Nigeria, the country with the largest population of post-secondary students and also the leading country of origin of African international students.

France is also focusing attention on African countries because of the rising unmet demand for education, thanks to the overcrowding of the African universities and emergence of a middle class in the continent who are interested in their children getting university education in Europe.

Besides, the ongoing interest in the recruitment of Africa’s mobile students by France and other popular destinations for outbound students is part of its strategic repositioning in Africa and the awareness that numbers of foreign students are growing less quickly or even declining in other regions.

“Patterns of recruitment of foreign students are changing, and we need to adapt,” says Campus France.

Through the strategy Bienvenue en France or ‘Welcome in France’, that was put in place in 2019, a year before the COVID-19 epidemic, France had been promoting its higher education in Africa by opening overseas campuses and joint academic programmes with African universities. Such campuses and partnerships exist in Tunisia, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire.

According to ICEF Monitor, the provider of intelligence on international student recruitment, France is likely to take advantage of declining interest in China as an appealing destination for African students.

Unlike France and some other popular student destinations, China’s border closures appear to have dampened current demand to study there, says ICEF Monitor.

But, amid efforts to attract African students, France will have to contend with the fragility of most economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, some of which suffer high inflation and political instability.

As a consequence, even with impressive numbers of potential outbound students, affordability of education in France and other foreign destinations could be at risk due to weak currencies.

In spite of such pitfalls, what is not in doubt is that international mobility is back after COVID-19 setbacks.

At present, the world has 6.1 million international mobile students while, according to ICEF Monitor, the interest in studying abroad is up 73% this year compared to what it was last year, and France is using Africa as an entry point to expand its foreign student footprint.