Squeezed Swiss weigh EU alliances against global mobility

With federal budgets under pressure from inflation and energy costs, universities must balance funding exchange projects versus increasing EU collaborations

June 2, 2023
Hot air balloons take off in the Swiss Alps to illustrate Squeezed Swiss weigh EU alliances against global mobility
Source: Getty

Swiss universities are waiting nervously as politicians and officials debate how much money the country should set aside for student mobility and participation in European Union alliances.

Movetia, the country’s national agency for academic exchange and student mobility, has called for extra funding after approving 22 per cent more exchanges in 2022 than the previous year, with more students taking advantage of the lifting of travel restrictions.

The agency was created in 2016 to run the Swiss substitute for Erasmus, which the country has been excluded from since 2014, when a referendum against mass immigration also saw it temporarily ejected from Horizon 2020.

From this year, a change in the law will allow it to fund exchanges worldwide, and its director Olivier Tschopp told Times Higher Education his staff predict a further 20 per cent increase.

But the welcome internationalisation boost comes just as national budgets tighten. “It’s a challenge we’re facing for the first time. Demand far exceeds the available funds, good projects cannot be supported or are severely cut,” said Mr Tschopp.

He is hoping politicians will agree to set aside extra funding for 2023 and 2024 to cover the uptick, and that this is factored into the agency’s allowances for 2025-28. A spokeswoman for the federal education department told THE that budgets were already set until 2025, but that afterwards they could grow “to be able to cover the increasing needs as far as possible”.

Many Swiss universities are already struggling to meet student mobility targets and Movetia’s funds must also cover participation in EU university alliances, which the Swiss have rushed to join since they were allowed to do so last year.

Leading universities in Geneva, Lausanne, Basel and Zurich are among those that have joined alliances, but a dependence on domestic funding can frustrate ambitions to fully participate, according to René Graf, vice-rector for education at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Western Switzerland. 

“It gets complicated if we are in the alliance and every time a project is initiated we have to say: ‘Not sure, we’ll see if there’s a possibility’,” he said.

“There’s a fair risk there that if we cannot do what we are expected to do we might be ejected and step out of those alliances, with huge damage not only for the academic world but also for the reputation of the reliability of Switzerland,” he said. 

Philipp Bieri, ETH Zurich’s lead for its role in the Enhance alliance, rejected the idea that universities may have to choose between global student mobility and a role in shaping European institutional cooperation.

“Despite the financial constraints, student mobility and the European Universities alliances should not be played off against each other, as they pursue different but complementary goals,” he said.

The education department said it understood that both student mobility and the alliances were important, but repeated that it would have limited budgets to work with “due to the tight situation of federal finances”.

The coming months could bring good news for Swiss alliance participation and wider re-engagement with EU programmes. The federal government is in the process of preparing its position for negotiations on Swiss-EU cooperation, with many hoping the resumption of talks, a precondition set by the European Commission, will allow Switzerland to begin rejoining Horizon Europe, although the political support for full Erasmus+ participation is less certain. 

The government has set a June deadline for finding a position, with hopes that talks could resume in the autumn.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles


Featured jobs