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Academic competition Corporate cash ‘boosts university’s global appeal’

Fehr is a committed defender of corporate funding at universities


Funding from UBS bank is helping to attract star economists to the University of Zurich as it bids to raise its profile in the internationally competitive field of higher education. The university recently announced the signing of nine new professors for its economics institute.

In an interview with the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, economics faculty head Ernst Fehr said that Switzerland’s largest bank had paid for three of the new professors and had played a role in securing a fourth. Third party funds, such as the non-profit Jacobs Foundation, had helped to finance the other appointments.

The new names include Florian Scheuer who was recruited from Stanford University. Other professors were headhunted from Harvard and the University of Chicago.

“In the mid-term we want to be playing in the world class league,” Fehr said of his institute. “We are already a recognizable actor on the international stage, which was not the case five years ago.”

“In economic teaching, the University of Zurich is counted as one of the top five universities in Europe.” He added that his faculty is considered by many to be on the same footing as the London School of Economics, despite being half of its size.

Recruiting more top professors, who come with an annual price tag of up to CHF243,000 ($250,000), is one pillar of Fehr’s strategy to boost the university’s image in a fiercely competitive international market. 

Zurich's strategy has limits as the top professors in the United States command seven digit figure salaries, Fehr admitted. "We are not in a position to offer half a million, let alone a million," he said.

The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings recently listed the University of Zurich in 106th spot across all disciplines. It rates higher in other league tables, including a 54th spot in the Shanghai Ranking 2016.

Many rankings award positive marks for the amount of private finance that universities attract, but the issue has courted some controversy in Switzerland. Earlier this year, Swiss public television SRF ran a report showing the size of corporate funding in higher education establishments, including evidence that at least one pharmaceutical company attached dubious strings to its contribution.

The creation of the UBS International Center of Economics in Society at the University of Zurich also created a storm in 2013 when 30 professors launched an appeal to protect the independence of academic research from corporates.

But Fehr, who is also Director of the UBS Center, said in his Sunday interview that it “helps us transfer economic knowledge into society and the economy.”

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