Belgian Eldorado? The reasons behind the French students exodus


It’s frequent to witness an important influx of french students at Belgium gates when inscriptions for the academic year are open

For many French students, crossing the border to go study abroad has become a common practice. Each year, more than 15,000 students go to the northern neighbour Belgium to carry out studies in the health professions or the relative sectors. It is not rare to see that French students enrolled in these courses are often more numerous than Belgian students. This year, 225 of the 250 new students at Marie Haps School in Belgium, are French. The Belgian authorities are increasingly concerned about these high figures and are currently trying to control the influx of French students through a system of quota and draw.


Photos and text by Alexandre Tabankia

Paris, France: Every year many French leave their country for their studies. According to the OECD  statistics, nearly 90,000 French go to study abroad. Studying, yes, but where? Still according to the OECD, 25% of these French students choose Belgium, then comes U-K, USA and Canada. While some of these seem relatively remote destinations, Belgium is yet different.


This graph (source: OECD) shows the repartition by country of french studying abroad. Belgium is the n°1 destination


Greater accessibility

For Robert Muller, dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy at the University of Mons (20 km from the French border), there are multiple reasons for French students to leave the country for studying.


The Mons University Campus (Belgium)

– First of all, the influx is due to the selection system in France. There are competitions to enter some schools and a fixed number of students who can attend these studies; we don’t have the same organisation in Belgium.  There is also the proximity with France, which leads many locals to come here. I like the fact that we have a mix of students with diverse backgrounds even though I still feel that most French students come back home at the end of their journey, says Robert Muller.




This competition often requires a preparatory year and is not always related to the curriculum. The success rate is particularly low, around 5%. Moreover, what is less known to the public is that some French schools have often prohibitive scholarship fees of about 5 or 6000 euros per year. Also, the views about higher education are somehow different in France and in Belgium. While France encourages studies up to the level of “baccalaureate” and make it almost as a “compulsory” thing, Belgians are more open about access to higher education. Thus, when they finish their “humanities” (high school diploma equivalent to the French baccalaureate), they easily get access to the majority of schools in the section of their choice. This is often at the end of this first year at the university that a selection is made. The advantage of this system is that the students have the opportunity to be in direct contact with the topics of their choice as compared to a pre-selection.


Bérangère Playoust plans to stay and practice in Belgium when her cursus is done

Bérangère Playoust is a 21-year French student who studies physiotherapy for 4 years at the University of Liège, another Belgian institute “invaded” by the French students. Originally from Crolles, Isere (800 km from Liège), she is one of the non-resident students to have benefited from the draw (see below).

– I wanted to leave my city and Belgium seemed to me as country with friendly people and good living standards. I already had very good feedbacks from some people who studied there. I got information from the forums about the quality of education and life in Belgium and they all looked quite positive. So, Belgium was my first choice. At the same time, I had registered for a one-year preparation course at Grenoble (FR)  but as soon as I knew that I had been selected, I did not hesitate for a second. If I had not won my place, I’d have probably remained in Grenoble and I would have worked tirelessly to succeed the “concours”.

Arnaud Krementscki was born in Saint Pee sur Nivelle, Pyrenees Atlantiques (1200km of Liège). It is also his fourth year at the University of Liège. Besides the fact that part of his family is Belgian, Arnaud decided to study physiotherapy in Belgium for a good reason.

– Access to the profession of physiotherapy in France is really complicated. And private schools cost really expensive. Limited number of places is another issue. You have to go through medical school where there are thousands of entries and only dozens of places. On the other hand, studies of physiotherapy in Belgium are quite well recognized abroad. I think it is better here and certainly more efficient (…) In France, we rather correspond to a “number”. (note: means one of the amount)


A french medicine classroom

Difficult studies to cope with

In France, medical studies are among the longest in higher education. They constitute both theoretical and practical courses, more theoretical at first, more practical then. The courses take place in three cycles within a university with a Training Unit and Research (UFR) of Medicine, associated with one of 44 university hospital centres. Their total duration varies from 9 years (general medicine) to 11 years (+ other sub-specializations). The undergraduate medical cycle take two years before a competition at the end of the first year (the famous “preparation year” also called “prepa”) to select students admitted to pursue medical or dental. Called PCEM1 (or P1), the first year is mostly theoretical, and ends with a particularly selective competition, allowing access to the specialities such as medicine, dentistry, midwifery, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. By its complexity, the PCEM 1 appears as an extremely difficult year and for some students, a psychologically difficult to cope with.

Camille Piat is French and studied for six years at the Faculty of Medicine René Descartes in Paris. She is currently preparing to take the ECN, a very complicated national competition. For her, there was never any question to study in Belgium.-

– At this point, if I fail, I will still be a doctor, but not at the place I want or in a case that I would have made a serious mistake leading me to be removed from the Order. In both cases, there would be no interest to start all over in Belgium again. And I doubt that there is a place where becoming a doctor is quick and easy! In any case, to become a good doctor is neither quick nor easy as there are too many things to learn, intellectually and humanely to use shortcuts.


Medicine students

Regarding the French superior educational system, she does not seem to find it too severe.

– I do not think it is too strict. Everyone cannot do medicine, so there must be a selection. If this was not the contest after the first year, it would be another modality, in my opinion, it’s just fair. At least, with the competition entry, motivation, intellectual capacity and resistance to fatigue and chronic stress are evaluated and these key factors are among the most important to be able to continue to do this job.

A restricted access

The number of students admitted to these health related studies in France is set by “numerus clausus”. This refers to the fixed number of students enrolled in certain courses every year, mainly in health professions. It was introduced in France in 1971. Since the introduction of a numerus clausus, willing to become a doctor primarily follows a cruel equation: 7500 seats in 2012 for more than 50,000 candidates. The profession is attracting more and more students according to Robert Muller.


Robert Muller, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy at the University of Mons (Belgium)

– A competition after a year of medicine has perverse effects. This can for example create an unhealthy atmosphere among students, only based on competitiveness, says Robert Muller. A fellow student becomes a competitor. Yet the absence of numerus clausus is not necessarily a good thing because there is a curious phenomenon in Belgium: The enthusiasm for health studies is very strong and we are left with a large number of students who come to study in Belgium. I’ve always said that if someone has the ability to study medicine, we shall not prevent him to do so. Now, politicians say that we can’t train more doctors than is necessary. Yet France is undergoing one of the perverse effects of the numerus clausus. There may be a shortage of doctors as well as regions where there will be no more doctors” (note: “medical deserts”).

For Philip Cordery, the French deputy for expatriates in Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) the problem is not new. He even questioned the Minister of Higher Education, Geneviève Fioraso on this issue.

– There’s this year, like the previous years, an influx of French students in Belgium. For some of them, it is a choice, but for others, on the contrary, it rather looks like forced mobility because there are not enough places in France. This poses a problem for teachers and Belgian students when classes are overloaded. This also creates problem of cost and shortage in these specialties for Belgium as French students return to France after their studies. This is obviously not simple for French students either as they are somehow “forced” to come to Belgium because the selection process is too tough in France.

The french national television already mention the problem in the news a few months ago.


En route to Belgium, French students consequently avoid the traditional entrance contest. They can therefore directly access certain sectors in Belgium (veterinary medicine, etc.), or resort to the inclusion in the country after suffering from a failure in French schools or universities. In addition, the European harmonization of qualifications and diploma allows students who have done their studies abroad to return and work in France.


Belgian campuses often provides cheaper places to live than in France

Better quality of life and lower cost

In Belgium, there are few students who live in very costly places. Student campuses are rather numerous and accommodations are more affordable and much larger than those used by students in France. Additionally, French is widely spoken in Belgium (one of the three national languages) and the overall living cost is lower than in France, as we already pointed out. If Bérangère Playoust does not regret her choice, she still finds many flaws in the French education system.

– It is clear that the system is too rigorous in France. And the prices are exorbitant in private schools. This can sometimes go up to 7000 euros in some private schools. Here, I pay about 835 euros (and a few extras)! I like my classes and I feel that I’m well formed, that I’ve got some good foundations. I feel that serious people provide us tutoring. In any case, I plan to stay here and practice my profession in Belgium. I think the educational system in France is not good because it does not offer the opportunity to everyone to do what he wants. In France, we “buy” our diploma. Most studies are very expensive; it is a lot of years of study. Regarding universities (cheaper), it does not always necessarily lead to a sufficient degree to practice afterwards. I still feel that the Belgian system is better and gives us more chances.

The paradox is striking. On one hand, France shows a serious shortage of doctors and on the other hand, it has hundreds of young people who are prevented from entering into the studies and then, the profession. For many French students, the choice is simple a going to Belgium is a reliable solution. But lately, things have changed. Since September 2012, the faculties of Medicine and Dentistry in the French speaking part of Belgium no longer accept first year students of more than 30% of “Non-residents” which means that the students that cannot justify three years of presence in Belgium. Let’s put this in a little context.

Quota and draw to face the “invasion”

Since the early 1990s, in Belgium, some fields of study have gradually been taken over by French students reaching unprecedented proportions for some specific studies. Between 2002 and 2005, it is estimated that more than 80% of students in veterinary are French. Given that these students chose the Belgian registration after missing the competition in France, and after having gone through the years of high level preparation, this may consider as disadvantage for Belgians who study in the same university. The rumour began to spread in the media and Belgian students got mobilized against the long registration quos in front of the universities were largely composed of French students. Marie-Dominique Simonet, the former Belgian Minister of Higher Education, proposed a decree that, after many hesitations, got approval on 16 Jun 2006. Aiming at limiting the number of foreign students, the decree was directly criticized and even has caused panic among foreign students.

What is the decree about? It states that for all non-resident students in Belgium (all nationalities combined) in nine sectors (physiotherapy, veterinary, occupational therapist, midwife, speech therapist, podiatrist, audiologist and educator), an entry quota will be applied: the foreign students may not exceed 30% of the total student community in the first year. Selection is made by a draw.

Sans titre

Even if she is aware that the system of draw has been favourable to some, unlike many other students, Bérangère Playoust thinks that these measures are justified.

For the French, this lottery system is necessarily damageable but at the same time, it is a good thing because the classes are completely invaded by the French, who are more numerous than the Belgians. In the end it is Belgium who pays studies and France did not pay a dime for French students who are trained and who then come back to work in France. I think it is normal to have such a system implemented even if it is sometimes unfair, she says.

Arnaud Krementscki’s opinions on the lottery system and quota are mitigated.

– I have mixed feelings. First of all, I think they introduced it because there was a hellish amount of French that filed the lecture halls, and secondly because more and more of the French remained in Belgium after their studies and “stole” a place to locals. So I find it normal to control this flow, but perhaps not through a lottery. I’ve been lucky, but playing your studies, your future on a lottery shot, I do not find it great. It might be better to select case by case …

The European Commission has recently announced that Belgium granted the right to maintain until 2016 quotas of places reserved for their own students to counter the influx of young people from France in their medical schools.

– We listened carefully to the arguments put forward by Belgium (…) and we have adopted a balanced position,  assured the European Commissioner for Education Androulla Vassiliou.

In 2010, the European Court of Justice, on application by a French student who invoked the discriminatory nature of this measure, had already agreed with the Belgian State. The European Court of Justice had still lifted in 2011 these quotas in six sectors, including orthophony or midwives, believing that this risk was not sufficiently justified.


The French Ministry of Higher Education and Research – Paris

Regarding the financing of studies of these foreign students, there’s also a debate. Because there’s only Belgium that pays a penny for french students when France doesn’t. It is therefore the French Community of Belgium (Wallonia-Brussels Federation) who pays on average between 5 and 6000 euros per year per student; an inappropriate cost in times of crisis while the French students are accused of “stealing” the places of Belgian students in schools. The Department of French higher education did not want to answer our questions (“too much work at the moment”) on measures that could be taken to limit the exodus to Belgium. Still, the French students continue each year to cross the border in search of a more accessible education.