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ETH Zurich's department of chemistry: Swiss universities currently benefit from billions of francs in funding from EU programmes (Keystone)

ETH Zurich's department of chemistry: Swiss universities currently benefit from billions of francs in funding from EU programmes

(Keystone)

Swiss universities currently fare very well in global rankings, but one researcher who compiles those lists predicts that the country’s recent vote to curb immigration could jeopardise its top spots. Phil Baty is the editor of the Times Higher Education World University rankings.

Universities recently learned that their participation in the European Union’s Horizon2020 funding programme, as well as the Erasmus Europe-wide student exchange, could be withdrawn after the immigration vote, which calls for a re-negotiation of the free movement of people agreement with the European Union. University rectors have sent a letter to the Swiss government expressing their concern over possible negative impact.

Baty explains to swissinfo.ch how a changing international landscape for Swiss universities could concretely affect their global prowess in the long and short term.

Overblown?

Politicians who supported the vote say the fallout is overblown. Nadja Pieren, who serves on the parliamentary committee for science, education and culture, and is a member of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party behind the initiative, told swissinfo.ch that she was “not worried” about the impact on universities.

“Switzerland was a leader in research and education before the introduction of the free movement agreement. That will not change even after the re-negotiation! The adoption of the mass immigration initiative doesn’t mean that our borders are closed. International researchers and students can continue to come….I cannot understand the hysteria.”

And the University of Geneva said this week that it had a backup exchange programme not reliant on the EU that students could take advantage of.

swissinfo.ch: Would not being able to participate in programmes like Horizon2020 or Erasmus affect Swiss universities’ reputations in your survey?

P.B.: There’s a real risk that the research impact will be badly damaged by this. Swiss universities are among the most international universities in the world, so there’s a wider problem as well that they’ve already thrived as being true international institutions with strong international faculty and student mobility. So I think they’ll be damaged on a number of different levels.

The most important criteria for the world university rankings is actually research impact - how good the quality of a university’s research is. Some of the top Swiss institutions do get significant funding from the state so their research base is maintained with pretty healthy funding from the government. But clearly, sources like the Horizon 2020 are a really important source of hard cash and hard cash is really important in terms of maintaining a competitive edge in research. Losing any source of revenue when money is tight, and when diversifying your income streams is important, is going to be a blow.

swissinfo.ch: If the Swiss can ultimately recoup any potential lost funding from other sources, will there be any long-term fallout?

P.B.: There’s a wider element beyond losing serious sums of money: it’s the sense of being more limited in your research networking. Global research universities are inherently global with global talent pools.

Switzerland has a fantastic reputation for bringing in international talents, and mobility within the EU has really helped their institutions thrive, not only in attracting good students but in attracting really good quality faculty. [Our rankings] have three factors looking at internationalisation: how many international students you have, how many international faculty members you have and how many of your research papers are published with an international co-author. Swiss universities are at the top of these lists.

The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne as well as Geneva University are the three most international universities in those terms, so it’s the wider message of not being part of that extremely exciting talent pool which is a concern beyond the element of hard cash being no longer available to the Swiss universities.

Top researcher calls it quits

On Wednesday, German-born renowned archaeological researcher Christoph Höcker, who works at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, said he was quitting his job and heading back to Germany because the immigration vote was the last straw after on-going “bashing” of German immigrants.

“You always read in [Swiss newspaper commentaries] that the Germans should go away,” Höcker wrote in a note to students. “Now I’m doing that. I have quit, and I’m sure a farm boy from canton Obwalden will be able to successfully take over my course,” he stated.

swissinfo.ch: Certain consequences will take longer to filter through and have an effect on university rankings. But are there more immediate risks for Swiss universities?

P.B.: I think there’s probably an immediate risk of a reputational blow. We have lots of hard objective data in the rankings, we look at research income, research impact through publication, proportion of international faculty and students. We actually have 13 indicators and some of them are based on hard objective data. That, of course, will take some time to filter through.

Reduced numbers of international faculty will be more of a long-term issue, reduced research income through losing out on various European research funding opportunities will take a while to filter through. But we do also have global reputation surveys, a peer review element where we survey thousands and thousands of the leading scholars around the world asking them to judge and name the best departments.

I think there’s a fairly serious risk that this sends out such a negative message to the rest of the world that Switzerland is less open to top talent, its borders are less open, it’s less welcoming, that there may even be a shorter-term reputational damage in terms of global scholarship. Global scholarship is very free-flowing, ideas know no national boundaries, it’s really not a national phenomenon and if you’re at the top end of your game it’s a truly global phenomenon. So there may be a short-term reputational hit as well as a long-term hit on some of the data points.

swissinfo.ch: Do you see this vote affecting Swiss universities in the rankings you are putting out this year?

P.B.: In terms of global reputation it probably couldn't have come at a worse time because we’re about to start surveying the world’s higher education workforce in the next few weeks. So this [vote] may be fresh in people’s minds. It sends out a very negative message in terms of global scholarship, I think.

swissinfo.ch: How important are the rankings for universities’ long-term viability and reputation?

P.B.: They’re a very significant driver of student behaviour and students around the world reference our rankings in the many millions to help them make decisions about where to study. But we also found that [our rankings] are used at a geopolitical level by governments and industry to help them make decisions about investments. So losing ground in the rankings could not only harm international student recruitment, but it could also potentially harm international collaboration and lead to a downward spiral. Lower rankings might mean you lose out on funding opportunities such as industrial research and development funding.

For us, it’s remarkable that the Swiss institutions are very clearly the strongest against our international indicators. So [the vote] does seem like a very worrying development as far as the universities being real global players and talent magnets, and it does send out a rather strange and worrying message.

University leaders react

Rectors and leaders from the two Federal Institutes of Technology, the University of Basel and the Swiss National Science Foundation gathered on Tuesday to express their concern at the potential loss of participation and funding through EU programmes like Horizon2020 and Erasmus. Several grants dependent on such programmes have deadlines coming up, and university leaders are telling students and professors to proceed with their applications, although they don’t know how things will play out.

“There are huge worries on the part of institutions, and it’s hard to know what to tell our researchers,” said Patrick Aebischer, the president of the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

“We all hope that our politicians will find a solution with the European Union,” said Professor Ralph Eichler, president of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. “We are a small country and we live from international competition, so it’s good for our students to see other countries and see a new way to look at problems [through programmes like Erasmus].”

“There’s also a symbolic element – a feeling of lost openness to the rest of the world. “Our openness defines us, and we have great worries about the future,” said Antonio Loprieno, president of the University of Basel.

And Martin Vetterli, president of the Swiss National Science Foundation, says the vote outcome was “very depressing,” especially since he happened to be visiting Silicon Valley in the United States when it was announced.

“When it comes to research, the US has always been a very open country and has attracted talent from all over. In some sense, Switzerland played the same role in Europe for a long time. To give up this achievement so easily is very sad.”

On Thursday evening around 300 students from Neuchâtel gathered in front of the federal parliament building in Bern to protest about the potential loss of the academic programmes.

swissinfo.ch

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