Swiss success in alliances ‘could hurt Horizon association hopes’

Strong entry into European Universities scheme could fuel claims that hurt from Horizon exclusion has been overblown, sector leader warns

August 5, 2022
Sign in the Alps of the Franco-Swiss border
Source: iStock

Swiss universities have cheered their entry into European Union-funded alliances, but a leading rector has warned that their success could be used by those opposed to a real rapprochement with the bloc.

A change in the rules has allowed four Swiss institutions to join networks assembled under the EU’s European Universities initiative, although their role as ‘associated partners’ will be funded out of a national pot.  

The universities of Basel, Geneva, Lausanne and Zurich are all joining alliances assembled under previous rounds of the initiative. 

Yves Flückiger, rector of the University of Geneva, told Times Higher Education that it was important for Swiss institutions like his to be part of alliance projects such as the development of joint master’s programmes. 

Unlike EU-funded partners, which split the cost of participation three ways with their national government and the EU, Swiss universities must cover half, with the rest borne by the federal government. 

Professor Flückiger, who also leads the rectors’ conference swissuniversities, said that the extra cost was worth it, but warned that alliance participation could come with another price if it was misused by Swiss politicians complacent about cold EU relations.

“It was quite important for us to take part in the movement, but it’s also created the feeling among some politicians that Switzerland is always able to find a middle way to get through these difficulties”, he said, referring to its exclusion from Horizon Europe after Switzerland walked away from wider EU talks

“It may increase the feeling that in fact there are many ways to be part of programmes in Europe and create a feeling that the situation is not so difficult as some people say.” 

Switzerland remains a “third country” in Horizon for the foreseeable future: able to join group projects with domestic funding but excluded from competing for individual EU grants. 

A June appeal to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to “unblock” full Swiss and UK participation in Horizon, signed by the heads of Switzerland’s two federally funded universities, won no concessions.

Professor Flückiger said he was “not very confident” about association and said it could be “years” before the political impasse is resolved.

Swiss research minister Martina Hirayama and members of the country’s executive had been “very, very active” in building research relations with countries outside Europe, like the US and South Africa, he said. “That makes me very worried about the future for Switzerland.” 

For the time being, some Swiss institutions can now enjoy slightly closer links to the EU. Denis Dafflon, director of international relations at the University of Lausanne, said his institution’s alliance had promised to treat it as a full partner. 

He said that the only potential exception was alliance work on “blended intensive programmes”, experimental courses funded by the wider Erasmus+ programme, of which Switzerland remains outside.

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

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