The fall-out from Swiss voters’ decision to limit EU immigration is not just affecting businesses. Uncertainty over grants means up to a third fewer foreign students have registered at Swiss universities this semester.
Two hundred foreign students will attend the University of Geneva, down from 300 last year, according to Le Matin Dimanche newspaper. A similar percentage drop has been seen at the University of Fribourg (137 to 85).
Decreases of 10-15% have been reported by the University of Neuchâtel, the University of Lausanne and the federal technology institutes in Zurich and Lausanne (ETHZ and EPFL). The only increase was at the University of Zurich, where numbers for foreign students have risen from 135 to 148 since last year.
On February 9, 50.3% of Swiss voters approved an initiative to curb immigration. The move by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party – known for its anti-foreigner and anti-EU agenda – calls for a reintroduction of quotas, as well as a national preference when filling job vacancies and restrictions of immigrants’ rights to social benefits.
This violates the free movement of people within the EU – which non-EU Switzerland has signed up to via a series of bilateral accords – so Brussels, in a tit-for-tat move, froze Switzerland out of research and education funds, including the Erasmus+ student exchange scheme.
“Registering for Erasmus+ took place just after the February 9 vote,” explained Marielle de Dardel, in charge of international relations at the University of Fribourg.
“Unable to guarantee students a grant, some [foreign] universities have simply crossed Switzerland off the exchange list or systematically marked out our universities in the choices made by students.”
Politicisation of education
Swiss interest in studying abroad remains high – last year a record 2,860 Swiss students took part in Erasmus+. But the current dynamic is causing concern, given that the programme is based on reciprocity.
“Our partners could at some point decide to no longer accept our students,” warned Pierre Willa, director of international relations at the University of Geneva. “If that were to happen, finding alternative solutions for student exchanges would result in much greater financial costs.”
Marielle de Dardel is worried that the issue is becoming increasingly politicised. “Reprisals on the part of European states – political gestures – can’t be ruled out,” she said.
“You can already sense the hostility coming from some of our partners. People are getting the impression that the Swiss want to have their cake and eat it too.”