Last February’s referendum seeking to restrict mass immigration from the European Union already has seriously damaged Swiss universities and complicated student exchanges. The federal government in Bern has less than three years (February, 2017) to decide how to implement the curbs on the free circulation of people, the pillar of the European cooperation, as constitutionally required by the popular initiative. Yet the fallout almost immediately removed Switzerland from the highly popular 33-country Erasmus university exchange programme. This enables students to study at different universities throughout the continent. Since the vote, fewer European students have applied to study in one of the twelve universities of the Swiss Confederation in the fall semester 2014.
The drop in the number of candidates is estimated at between 10-30 percent. “It is a real pity for these students to whom we offer luxurious study conditions, with housing arrangements, and the possibilities of internships,” regrets Marielle de Dardel, head of the department of the international relations at the University of Fribourg.
Conscious of the devastating effects on Erasmus, Bern has taken temporary measures by redistributing the CHF 22.7 million that would have gone to the EU in the form of student scholarships. But this amount is insufficient to support the number of students coming here to live decently.
The prestigious Federal Polytechnic University of Lausanne (EPFL), which has an intake of 40 percent non-Swiss, has managed to renew its agreements with 150 European universities. Nevertheless, this does not resolve the issue. Swiss universities are forced to re-negotiate their own accords, institution by institution, country by country. To date, the University of Lausanne has lost exchange deals with seven Italian and Spanish universities out of a total of 220 agreements.
While Swiss universities may be able to stem the tide for students applying for Erasmus, it is much harder when it comes to researchers. If the proposed policy on immigration actually goes into effect – the federal government has yet to decide how, or if, it will implement the referendum – then the consequences could prove disastrous for Swiss universities. One positive indication, however, was the massive public rejection of the 30 November Ecopop initiative, which was seeking even tighter restrictions on foreign migrants. This suggests that the Swiss may seek to overturn the February vote either with a new rectifying referendum or by coming to a legal compromise that does not undermine the bilateral accords with the EU that Brussels considers not up for change.