Last June, Campus France released their annual report on international student mobility big trends. This publication mainly draws on UNESCO 2019-2020 figures and on 2020-2021 data provided by the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research.
Engineering students’ mobility in France
In 2019-2020 according to UNESCO, France ranks seventh among countries welcoming the most foreign students in degree mobility, with more than 246,000 students (+7% compared to 2018-2019). Despite this increase, France still dropped by one position behind Canada, which ranks sixth.
Data from the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, which take into account degree-mobile students as well as some exchange mobility students and foreign students holding a French Baccalaureate, show a total of 370,000 international students in 2019-2020 and almost 365,000 in 2020-2021. Though a slight overall decrease (-1%) is recorded due to the Covid-19 crisis, a few disparities can be observed between institutions. Indeed, engineering schools were less impacted by the pandemic compared to other French institutions, as evidenced by a 3% increase of foreign students in their courses, evolving from 26,500 to near 27,430 between 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. Over the course of these last five years, engineering schools have even recorded +22% foreign students, when the overall growth of foreign students in France was only +18%.
As for where these foreign students come from, the top 3 countries slightly shifted between 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 according to the Ministry: Algeria overtook China and is now second, just behind Morocco, which maintains the first position with close to 45,000 Moroccan students coming to study in France in 2020-2021 (+22% in five years). The number of Chinese students did not really evolve these last five years, whereas Algerian students increased by 29%. The decrease of the Chinese student population in France can be explained by structural factors as well as the Covid-19 crisis.
Overall, the student population coming from the North African – Middle-East area grew by 24% in five years (between 2015-2016 and 2020-2021). The greater increase is found in sub-Saharan African students, whose population in France grew by 41% in five years. The number of European students only evolves mildly over the same period, with an increase of 11%.
Regarding PhD mobility, in 2019 France remained at 3rd position among countries receiving PhD students in international mobility, according to the OECD. It welcomed more than 25,000 students, despite a 5% decrease between 2016 and 2019. Yet, France mainly hires PhD students overseas: in 2022, 40% of them came from abroad according to the Ministry.
Finally, outgoing mobility of French students grows. Indeed, according to UNESCO, more than 103,000 French students engaged in degree programs abroad in 2019-2020, that is +3,8% compared to 2018-2019 and +26% since 2014-2015. In 2019, France ranked in 5th position among top home countries of degree-mobile students in the world, moving up one place compared to 2018.
Student mobility in Europe and the world
UNESCO reports that almost 570,000 students from the European Union carried out a degree mobility in a European country in 2019 (+23% in five years). The United Kingdom was the leading destination, with more than 144,000 EU students, while France was the 5th with close to 32,000 students.
However, it is very likely that Brexit, that led to the reinstatement of Student Visa procedures and the rise of UK universities’ tuition fees for European students, caused a decrease of students coming to study in the UK. Evidence of this situation should be found in UNESCO figures from 2020 and 2021, that will be published within the next couple of years. The UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service already noticed a 50% decrease in the enrolment of students from the EU between 2020 and 2021.
In addition, further efforts are still to be made to boost European degree mobility in France, in particular cross-border mobility. Indeed in 2019, students from the EU represented only 13% of foreign degree-mobile students in France, which is only the 4th destination for German students and the 3rd one for Spanish students. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, France was able to maintain Erasmus+ mobilities. Although the Erasmus students’ population in France dropped by 2% between 2018-2019 and 2019-2020, this decrease was less significant compared to competitor countries: Germany and Spain for instance recorded a decrease of 14% and 8% respectively. In contrast, the number of French students carrying out a degree mobility in Europe kept growing significantly these last years: +40% between 2014 and 2019. They were more than 60,000 in 2019.
Regarding worldwide trends, the number of students enrolled in an outgoing degree mobility abroad in 2019-2020 exceeded 6 million for the first time (+8,3% in a year). Although they faced a slight decline in comparison with 2018-2019 (-1%), the USA remain the number one receiving country. The UK however lost their 2nd position to Australia, that received almost 510,000 foreign degree-mobile students in 2019-2020 (+15% in a year). Apart from Australia, other countries experienced the above-average growth of their foreign degree-mobile students between 2018-2019 and 2019-2020: Canada (+24%), Turkey (+23%) and China (+13%). As mentioned earlier, even though France follows the global increase of foreign student population around the world, it dropped one place in the ranking of top hosting countries, positioning 7th in 2019-2020.
Campus France report identifies three events that could impact UNESCO 2020-221 and 2021-2022 facts and figures on international student mobility: the Covid-19 pandemic (2020-2021 being the most impacted years), Brexit (the UK’s withdrawal agreement took effect on 1 January 2021) and the war in Ukraine (Russia being the 5th destination country of degree-mobile students in 2019-2020, with a significant growth these last years: +33% in five years). Data from the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research have already shown how the pandemic eventually had a limited impact on the number of foreign students received in France, including in engineering schools that were able to bounce back and adapt to partner countries’ restrictions to face the crisis. It will however be interesting to analyse these data regarding global figures and to compare the situation in France to its main competitor countries.