Swiss research lacks structure

March 21, 1997

A panel of international academic experts has found serious structural defects in the way humanities research is organised in Switzerland.

Following an earlier assessment of research in the social sciences, the Swiss Science Council commissioned an international evaluation of research in the humanities in 11 disciplines, from languages (German, French, Italian and Spanish), to African studies, musicology, philosophy, Slavonic studies, classics, archaeology, history, history of art, theology and the study of religions.

It started with a range of reports submitted by Swiss representatives in the different disciplines, followed by an outside evaluation through a group of 24 international experts chosen from Europe and Canada, headed by Aant Elzinga, professor of science theory at the University of Goteborg. The results were discussed at a conference in Berne last month.

The SSC will present the results and its own recommendations to the Swiss parliament to legislate on future research policy. There is pressure to maintain competitiveness and excellence at an international level, to reorganise national research funding and overhaul out-of-date university structures so as to encourage and foster indigenous Swiss talent in the humanities.

The experts recognised the high quality and excellent results of much research in Swiss universities, but pinpointed difficulties in the organisation and funding of humanities research.

While they agreed that the linguistic and regional diversity of the country was a great strength, the different organisational models of universities in the German and French-speaking regions, together with the regional autonomy of the cantons in determining university policy, produced a bewildering variety of situations and serious research constraints. These contributed to fragmentation and the isolation of individual researchers and disciplines.

The system's strong hierarchical structure was seen as particularly invidious, with highly-paid full professors wielding too much authority and hardly any established positions between the assistants at the bottom and the professors at the top.

This makes for inflexibility, lack of innovation, and a strong bottleneck for the younger generation of scholars who find it hard to get sustained funding and a secure paid position. One expert put it: "Switzerland has missed out on the student revolution of 1968" and, in consequence, the system is not sufficiently democratised.

Younger researchers suffer from an absence of security, the lack of a graded career structure and the traditional oligarchy of the professorial body. The situation is far worse for women and the need for an improvement in their position in all disciplines was a marked feature of all reports.

Doctoral dissertations and the subsequent Habilitation take so long that the young Swiss are often disqualified from applying for professorial posts in their own country. These are often filled by more highly qualified foreign scholars while younger Swiss researchers can often only find research positions abroad.

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