The UK may struggle to imitate Switzerland’s success in setting up its own student mobility programme if Brexit forces the country out of the Erasmus+ scheme, it has been warned.
When Switzerland was compelled to suspend negotiations to join Erasmus+ after voting to place limits on immigration from the European Union in a 2014 referendum, it established a replacement, the Swiss-European Mobility Programme, within six weeks.
The “major piece of work”, according to Lutz-Peter Berg, head of science and innovation at Switzerland’s UK embassy, was the process of institutions negotiating new bilateral agreements with each of their former Erasmus+ partners.
It was successful in the majority of cases. In fact, Switzerland’s incoming and outgoing student mobility increased between 2014-15 and 2015-16.
But Dr Berg told Times Higher Education that there were several reasons why the UK higher education sector may find it harder to establish such a programme.
Speaking after delivering a speech on Switzerland’s mobility “survival story” at Universities UK International’s Go International Conference, he explained that the country had a long history of being outside the Erasmus programme and of running a shadow scheme in which it has to fund its own incoming and outgoing mobility: between 1995 and 2010 the nation was a “partner” rather than member country of the scheme.
The immigration focus of the 2014 referendum also meant that mobility and research funding were always the main points of focus for the government, Dr Berg said.
Meanwhile, the Swiss government already had the “political will” to support mobility and was easily able to allocate funding for its own programme, he added.
While the UK writes one large cheque to Brussels that pays for EU membership in general, Switzerland’s position outside the European Union means that the money it pays towards membership of programmes such as Erasmus+ is “ring-fenced”.
“There was a pot of money [for mobility] that was now unused which the Swiss government could now say ‘since we’re not paying it to Brussels we can use it to fund our own scheme’,” he explained.
However, he said that a potential advantage for the UK is the quality and popularity of its universities within Europe.
“If anything, the UK higher education sector has a stronger case than the Swiss one,” he said.
“How many students one country can send abroad often depends on how many foreign students want to come to your country. There’s a very strong motivation for all these universities in Europe who want to send their students to the UK to have partnership agreements with UK universities.”
Dr Berg said that the main challenge for UK universities would be to ensure that student mobility is high up the government’s “list of priorities” during Brexit negotiations.
Despite the success of Switzerland’s mobility programme, its aim is to rejoin the Erasmus+ programme, he added. While student mobility has been maintained under Switzerland’s own scheme, the country is unable to take part in strategic conversations with other countries in Erasmus+ or lead consortia of institutions.
Erasmus+ is the “gold-standard”, he said. “What we’re doing at the moment clearly is a fallback option but it works. It does the job.”