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25th May 2017

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University quotas on foreign students may be allowed, says EU court

  • The onus is on the national authorities to prove that restrictive measures are necessary (Photo: James Almond)

The European Court of Justice has indicated that member states can impose quotas on the number of EU students coming from other countries under certain strict conditions.

In a ruling on Tuesday (13 April), the court said that while discrimination against students on the basis of nationality contravenes EU law, it may be allowed if it ultimately protects public health.

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It "may be justified by the objective of maintaining a balanced high quality medical service open to all, in so far as it contributes to achieving a high level of protection of health," said the court in a statement.

The ruling was in response to a case before the Belgian national court challenging a 2006 decree limiting the number of non-resident students studying certain physiotherapy and veterinary degrees to 30 percent in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium.

The quota was put in place after the Belgian authorities argued that public health was endangered as there were not enough Belgian graduates in the area. Before the 2006 quota came into place, around 75 percent of the students in such courses were non-resident in Belgium. They mostly came from France.

The Belgian court referred the case to the European Court of Justice for interpretation of EU law. In response, the Luxembourg-based court said the quota could only be maintained if the national authorities using "objective, detailed analysis, supported by figures," prove there are "genuine risks" to public health.

Then the Belgian court has to assess, in light of the evidence given by the national authorities, if the quota in place is appropriate. It must also examine whether the safety of public health could not be ensured by less restrictive measures, such as encouraging foreign students to settle in Belgium after their studies.

The ruling is likely to be carefully studied by other member states facing similar problems. Austria, which has many German students in its medical courses, has also imposed a quota.

Under the Austrian decree, 75 percent of the places for medicine are for students with a certificate from Austrian schools, while 20 percent of places are reserved for students from other EU countries, and five percent for non-EU students.

Austrian newspaper Der Standard notes that Tuesday's ruling suggests that Austria's decree is also not likely to fall foul of EU law on discrimination grounds.

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