Swiss students at the University of Oxford are unhappy about a big increase in their tuition fees, even if they remain largely unconcerned about Brexit, says Leo Eigner Shearmur, himself a student at Lincoln College.
Brexit may be testing relationships between the United Kingdom and the rest of the world, but on August 1, 2019, like every year, the Swiss flag will be hoisted above Lincoln Collegeexternal link, one of the oldest colleges at Oxford.
This is a testimony to the many historic ties between Switzerland and the university in general, and the nearly 600-year-old Lincoln College in particular. In the college’s graduate common room, carvings of the Swiss cantons can be seen around the fireplace and full scholarships are available at Lincoln to students from Switzerland and Liechtenstein through the Berrow Foundationexternal link.
“We like to think of ourselves as providing a hub for Swiss things in Oxford,” says Lincoln’s Rector, Professor Henry Woudhuysenexternal link. This situation came after a former student and admirer of the Swiss, the Marquis de Amodio, established the Berrow Foundation in 1985 to further Anglo-Swiss relations.
As a mark of its success, Alain Bersetexternal link became the first Swiss president to visit Lincoln College in October 2018, accompanied by the current Swiss ambassador to the UK, Alexandre Faselexternal link, and the former Swiss National Bank director, Philipp Hildebrand, one of 125 Swiss students to have benefited from the Berrow Foundation.
But will the UK’s upcoming exit from the European Union have some effect on these relations? Not in terms of being able to remain at Oxford. The university has already assured its foreign students that they would be able to complete their studies and retain their funding under any Brexit scenario.
“There are good reasons to be seriously concerned about Brexit in terms of its impact on European politics and for the political climate in the UK,” says Caspar, a MPhil History student. “In terms of my personal situation, however, I don't feel affected.”
Baptiste, a Berrow scholar and DPhil student in Surgical Sciences, believes that “Brexit might actually bring the UK and Switzerland closer together, as the UK government will have to work on bilateral agreements with the EU, which Switzerland have been doing for a long time”.
On February 25, 2019, the Swiss-UK citizens’ rights agreement affirmed the right of all Swiss nationals (and their family members) to remain in the UK, and vice versa, even in the event of a no-deal British exit from the EU. The new bilateral agreement has greatly clarified the situation for Swiss nationals in the UK and signals a continuation in Anglo-Swiss relations.
Fees ‘more than double’ previous tuition
However, Swiss nationals at Oxford have faced tuition fee hikes of more than twice what they had been paying previously. Starting in 2015, students from Switzerland became no longer eligible for “Home fee status”.external link Unless they have been resident in the UK/EU for the three years prior to starting their studies or have had a close relative living in the UK/EU for a minimum of three years, Swiss students are now considered to be “Overseas fee payers”.
Previously, UK, EU, European Economic Areas (EEA) and Swiss nationals paid £9,250 (CHF12.200) in annual tuition fees, Swiss nationals now face costs ranging from £24,740 to £34,678 a year for an undergraduate degree. By contrast, an equivalent diploma in Switzerland costs between £650 and £1,000.
The reasons behind this change are unclear. What is clear, however, is that most Swiss students at Oxford would not be there without financial support. To attend Oxford, a Swiss PhD student forgoes a salary, which at an elite Swiss university like the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurichexternal link) can pay as much as £30,000 and £61,000 a year.
“If I had not got the scholarship, I would not have come to Oxford,” says Lucas, a second-year graduate student in Physical and Theoretical Chemistry. “Getting a PhD from Oxford is extremely overpriced compared to the ETH Zurich. A scholarship can make up for the financial loss you have to bear in preferring Oxford.”
Nevertheless, Swiss students choose Oxford because of its academic excellence, the chance to improve their language skills, and the opportunity to work with leaders in their chosen fields.
Nora, who has recently completed a PhD in International Development, agrees. Her interest in migration studies led her to apply to Oxford specifically so that she could work at the Refugee Studies Centre, the oldest institution of its kind in the world. “Oxford was my number one choice,” she says, “but without the funding I would have gone elsewhere, depending on where I would have secured funding.”
Lincoln’s rector Woudhuysen also sounds the alarm: “We are losing some of our best potential students to other universities outside the UK. That is why we need to raise funds to support graduate students to stay here”.
Spreading the word
In association with the Berrow Foundation, Lincoln College is eager to forge closer links with the ETH Zurich and other Swiss universities. The Foundation is also using its own network of Berrow scholars and Swiss academics to spread the word among prospective students.
There are also a number of federal and non-federal programmes offering funding (see box).
Funding – what’s on offer
On the Swiss side, there is the Swiss European Mobility Programexternal link (SEMP) and the Swiss National Science Foundationexternal link (SNF) which seek to promote international research and cross-cultural exchanges.
The SEMP, for instance, invests over £30 million a year to enable students to study abroad in Erasmus+ countries. In 2016/17, 270 Swiss students and 172 British students benefited from this program. Non-federal programmes, such as the Swiss Study Foundationexternal link and Fondation Zdenek et Michaela Bakalaexternal link, also provide grants and scholarships.
The Swiss students interviewed for this article said that students wanting to study abroad would benefit from more information about funding opportunities and greater encouragement at high school and undergraduate level in Switzerland.
Bernadette, a Berrow scholar and DPhil student in Systems Approaches to Biomedical Science, believes that “there should be more scholarships for Swiss students to go abroad”.
“The university fees in places such as the UK are very high and working and studying is not an option. This means that many talented students don't get the opportunity to study there. Switzerland benefits from the skills, experiences and networks students bring back from abroad in the long run”.
A previous version of this article suggested a direct link between Brexit and fee increases for Swiss students at Oxford. The decision to increase fees was not directly related to Brexit, according to the Swiss embassy in the UK. We regret the error.