PARIS (Reuters) - France wants to boost the number of foreign students at its universities by more than half over the next decade and will offer more courses taught in English to attract them.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, announcing the plan on Monday, said increasing the number of foreigners studying in the country would help build French influence overseas.
Home to centuries-old universities such as the Sorbonne in Paris and some leading business schools, France is the world's top non-English speaking student destination, but it ranks behind the United States, Britain and Australia.
The number of foreign students at French universities fell by 8.5 percent between 2011 and 2016 and the country has seen increased competition from Germany, Russia, Canada and China, the prime minister's office said.
"Many countries are already building global attractivity strategies, linking studies, the job market, tourism, which explains the influence of Asia or monarchies in the Gulf," Philippe said in a speech unveiling the strategy. "In this field just as in other economic ones, the world's balance of power is shifting. That's why we need to welcome more foreign students."
Under the plan, France will simplify student visa regulations but will also increase tuition fees for students outside the European Economic Area in order to be able to provide better facilities. However, fees will still be much lower than in Britain and other neighbouring countries.
From March 2019, foreign graduates with a French master's degree will be able to get a residence visa to look for work or set up a business in France.
"We are constantly compared, audited, judged among 10 other possible destinations. In an age of social media, no one can rest on its reputation only," Philippe said.
French officials said current fees of around 170 euros ($195) a year for a bachelor's degree in France or 243 euros for a masters' - the same as those paid by French students - was interpreted by students in countries like China as a sign of low quality.
From September 2019, non-European students will be charged 2,770 euros annually to study for a bachelor's degree and 3,770 euros a year for masters and PhDs.
"That means France will still subsidise two thirds of the cost of their studies," Philippe said. "And the fees will remain well below the 8,000 euros to 13,000 euros charged by the Dutch or the tens of thousands of pounds paid in Britain," he said.
Some of the extra revenue will be used to boost the number of scholarships offered by the foreign ministry.
The number of courses taught in English, which have already been increased fivefold since 2004 to 1,328, will be boosted further, Philippe said.
More French classes will also be on offer for foreign students and student visa applications will be made available online.
(Reporting by Marine Pennetier and Michel Rose; Editing by Susan Fenton)