A recent article in Le Temps suggests that Patrick Aebischer, president of Lausanne’s prestigious École Polytechnique Fédérale (EPFL), has gone too far with his ambitious plans to expand what is now referred to as the “MIT of Europe”. The 9 February referendum on immigration threatens not only EPFL’s European Union funding, but also access to some of the world’s most qualified teaching talent. Critics also question the development of an EPFL campus at Ras al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates.
Aebischer’s American-style approach of roping in diverse funding, ranging from federal and cantonal support to corporate and foundation sponsorship, clearly bothers the purists. For some Swiss, who fail to grasp that their country can simply no longer function in a parochial vacuum of closed boundaries, EPFL has become too big for its boots.
According to Aebischer, who took over EPFL in 2000 placing it placing firmly on the global map in less than a decade, the university relies on 25% of its competitive funding from the EU. This includes support for the highly controversial Human Brain Project in Geneva. As with other institutes, such backing is now threatened by the February vote. What Switzerland needs to realize, he said, is that “the future of research and of Swiss universities lies within Europe”. While EPFL used to receive 80% of its funding from the Swiss government, it now only receives 60%.
The EPFL debate underlines the competitive importance of one of Switzerland’s key strengths: its academic institutions. EPFL’s free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) programme for more than half a million Africans is a clear investment in this fast-rising continent of opportunity. So is its support for more than 120 high-tech start-ups operating within its Innovation Park. For economic reasons alone, such initiatives are sufficient argument for Switzerland to continue with this cutting-edge research and development approach.
Geneva’s Graduate Institute, for example, has emerged as an incisive global issues trailblazer, particularly since it moved to its shiny new headquarters at the Maison de la Paix. It is deliberately pushing for greater collaboration with outside partners, notably in the private, humanitarian, media and academic sectors. And in Lausanne, IMD business school is a dominant force among the planet’s top schools. These are the cards that Switzerland needs to be playing; not a limited vision that cannot see beyond the Alps.
Le News Managing Editor, Edward Girardet. email@example.com