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English a fact of life for many Swiss students

The use of English at Swiss universities is filtering down from doctorate to bachelor level Keystone

More than ever before, students attending universities in Switzerland are able to do some or all of their degree in English. This is especially the case at the master’s level.

During the first year of his master’s studies at the University of Bern, Claudio Kummli would find himself in class with students and a professor who, like him, were native German speakers. But once the lecture on climate physics began, it was English-only for two solid hours.

“It would have been easier to do it in German,” Kummli admits. “If you are a little tired, it’s really hard to understand everything,” he adds. “But these are the rules – the study programme is in English.”

Such rules are becoming increasingly common in universities across Switzerland.

According to the Rectors’ Conference of Swiss Universities (CRUS), the number of programmes taught in English is growing each year, particularly at the master’s level.

And while courses in the natural sciences have been given in English for at least a generation, in recent years the language has proliferated in the social sciences and humanities.

Sabina Schaffner, an expert on language policy in higher education, says that offering programmes in English is a way for universities to attract more international students and researchers.

“Switzerland is a small country where research and education are very important resources,” says Schaffner, who directs the Language Centre at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) and the University of Zurich.

“We need more students and researchers from abroad for economic reasons and for academic research.”

The Rectors’ Conference estimates that nearly 50% of lecturers and 28% of students currently in the country are non-Swiss.

Each of the 12 universities in Switzerland offers at least one master’s programme taught in English, although in some institutions that number is much higher.

The majority of these programmes are in the sciences. Management, business and economics are also usually taught in English.

In other disciplines, students can also take a small but growing number of degrees in English, such as in European Integration, Humanitarian Action, Corporate Communication, Anthropology, Sport Administration, and Literature.

The number of master’s programmes taught in English varies by university. ETH Zurich offers the greatest number (38), followed closely by the University of Zurich (34).

At the other end of the scale, the University of Neuchâtel offers five master’s programmes in English and the University of Lucerne one.

The language of business and research

But boosting international admissions is only part of the story. Universities face the important task of preparing students for careers in fields where English now dominates. These include industry, business and finance, and several areas of scientific research.

“In the natural sciences, the whole discussion is in English,” says Kummli, who’s currently writing his master’s thesis on meteorology in English. “So you have to be able to express yourself.”

But English matters not just to graduates in the sciences or business, but also to future academics in the social sciences.

According to Schaffner, research in fields like psychology and sociology is appearing increasingly in English. And that’s slowly becoming the case as well for disciplines in the humanities not usually associated with Shakespeare’s language.

“Even though you’re a specialist of Italian literature, you might still have to publish in English, whereas 20 years ago you would have published only in Italian,” Schaffner says. So even in programmes not officially taught in English, students may still be expected to read articles and write papers in this language.

Although English is making inroads mostly at the graduate level, experts believe that won’t last.

“We see English going down the academic scale,” says Simon Milligan, a lecturer with Academic English Services at the University of Bern who gives courses in writing and speaking. English has filtered down from the doctoral level, says Milligan, and he predicts that eventually, “within certain disciplines we will see more demand for English support at the bachelor level”.

A question of policy

As universities add more study options in English, Schaffner says it’s important for them to come up with a coherent language policy.

“Authorities in higher education should have a thorough discussion about what we want to achieve,” she says. “On what grounds do we want to adopt an English-only master’s programme, or maybe a partly-English programme, and why?”

At the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), this type of discussion is now underway. The school wants to formalise rules that allow a maximum number of courses taught in English at the bachelor’s level: from one or two courses in the first year to a maximum of just under 50% by the third year.

“We want to prepare students and make sure they have the proper level of English to cope in the most comfortable way possible with the master’s programme,” explains Lionel Pousaz, a spokesperson for the EPFL, where most technical and scientific graduate courses are given in English.

At the University of Bern, a total of 15 master’s programmes – ranging from climate sciences to statistics to political, legal and economic philosophy – are currently taught in English.

To help students cope with the language requirements, Academic English Services (AES) offers courses in writing, speaking and presenting. Students of all disciplines and study levels can attend.

Simon Milligan, one of the AES lecturers, says that students usually arrive with a good level of English, but the greatest challenge facing them is time.

Graduate students in some of the natural sciences carry a heavy course load with English as the language of instruction.

To make sure they get an adequate level of language support, some departments have made it mandatory for students to attend tailor-made AES classes once a week.

A balancing act

Still, not everyone is in favour of allowing more English at universities. Some academics, particularly in the social sciences, see important downsides.

“They feel it can be a loss,” Schaffner says. “When they do research in only one language, perhaps they miss out on other things; they can’t grasp differences in meaning.”

There are also concerns about preserving Switzerland’s linguistic heritage.

Didier Berberat, member of the association for the defence of French, recently told the Geneva-based Le Courrier that the EPFL’s language policy was “a dangerous drift” and warned a precedent was being set.

He pointed to the fact that research applications to the National Science Foundation must now be completed in English. “In several cantonal universities, the names of the [research] fields and degrees are only in English,” he added.

But Pousaz stresses that EPFL intends to preserve its French-speaking roots.

“It’s about finding a balance between our French identity and fixing a limit and reason why we have to teach in English,” he says.

Schaffner agrees that universities have to strike a delicate balance in the language debate.

“English as a lingua franca exists in a multilingual context,” she says. “It’s important to keep other language traditions and see what research in these languages offer.”

That said, instruction in English will become increasingly hard to avoid.

“We have to accept the fact that even in the arts and the humanities, English is going to be more important in the long term,” Schaffner says. “And we have to cope with that.”

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