PARIS – Members of higher education's high society, a group that includes the minister of education, university presidents and even investors, have been putting their heads together of late in an effort to improve the international image of France's universities. Their goal – as unimaginable as it may have seemed just a couple of years ago – is to show that France's top schools can compete in the world market.

Admittedly, the universities don't exactly shine in international rankings. In the Shanghai rankings, Paris-Sud, the highest ranking French institution, was 40th on the international list. Part of that is because of the extremely decentralized nature of French higher education – the system is split up between 85 universities and 220 grandes écoles – and the organization of research institutes.

However, when it comes to increasing their attractiveness, French Universities have made substantial progress. Currently they receive more than 280,000 foreign students per year (more than half of whom are in master's or doctorate programs). France has the third largest number of foreign students worldwide, behind only the United States and the UK. And more and more courses are offered in English.

"Promotion of the French language has given way to courses in English," Louis Vogel, the president of the conferences of University presidents, noted during an event last week called "Discovering French Universities," which brought together many of France's higher education policy makers.

Some institutions, following the example set by the grandes écoles, have started to open overseas campuses. Dauphine has a campus in Tunis, the Sorbonne has a campus in Abu Dhabi and Panthéon-Assas has a law school in Singapore.

A Better Welcome

Above all, educational reforms first implemented in 2007, including changes to the French equivalent of the bachelor's degree and the creation of a research and teaching center, have begun to bear fruit. Universities have become more active and self-confident. The launch of various different foundations has also increased motivation in the higher education sector, even if universities are not rolling in dough.

"Between 2009 and 2011, the expenditures per student have decreased slightly," said Yannick Lung, president of Bordeaux-IV. In 2009, the average expenditure per student was 10,220 euros.

There's still a major obstacle to overcome: the physical reception of international students. Several French campuses, including the Cité Universitaire in Paris, offer acceptable accommodations for students. But there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Even more worrying is that the international campaign happens to coincide with a recommendation from the interior minister that would prevent foreign students from starting their careers in France. The financial requirements for students wishing to study in France have also become more stringent, a change that university presidents, the grand écoles and business groups all opposed. "It discourages students from coming," stressed Louis Vogel. "You have to have a long-term vision."

Even in this regard, though, things are getting better. Most universities have an office dedicated to foreign students. La Rochelle, for example, has a number of master's students from Asia. "We offer them everything they need to succeed," assures Fernando Pedraza Diaz, vice-president of international actions.

In Strasbourg and Lille, Erasmus students are hosted in families over the weekend. Many sites offer international students special streamlined services to make things as easy as possible. Indeed, there are many signs that the universities are trying to get ahead. Speaking to reporters during the Discovering French Universities event in Paris, politician Laurent Wauqiuez summed things up nicely – in English. "French university is back."

Read the original article in French

Photo – Panoramas