Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

Questions raised over foreign student influx

Studying at university now goes beyond borders Keystone

Students from abroad are flocking to study in Swiss universities, but the development has raised concerns in some quarters.

While many agree that overseas students help boost diversity and quality, a debate is raging over whether quotas should be introduced or fees raised to stem costs.

According to the Federal Statistics Office, from 1997-2008 the numbers of foreigners starting first degrees or bachelors increased by around eight per cent per year. In 2008, 19 per cent of students were foreign.

In addition, foreigners make up around 18-20 per cent of masters students and account for almost 50 per cent of those in doctorate programmes.

Studies have shown that overseas students are attracted by Swiss universities’ good reputations and study conditions. Low fees, at an average SFr1,500 ($1,400), are also a help.

Another factor has been the Bologna reform, which harmonises qualifications across Europe and encourages mobility. This is particularly relevant for masters programmes, many of which were created in the wake of Bologna.


But the numbers have caused concern. A recent article in the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper spoke of an “invasion” of foreign students, resulting in Swiss universities “being the victims of their own success” and a rise of bachelor students to one in four in ten years’ time.

The Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) has seen many Germans in the growing tide of overseas students. This is because of the difficult German university situation and growing interest in studying in Zurich, said Rector Dieter Wüest.

He said there were two sides to the rise in foreign students. “The advantage is that there is more competition, we hope to bring in excellent students which improve quality and there is an international atmosphere and culture which is also a benefit to our Swiss students.”

“On the other hand we have to take care that we don’t exceed our capacities,” he told

One solution – most recently mooted by local politicians in Zurich – is introducing an overseas students’ quota.

St Gallen experience

St Gallen University is one of the rare institutions to have a 25 per cent quota in place. Thomas Bieger, its vice president and responsible for internationalisation, said it was introduced for a combination of financial and diversity reasons.

The university is owned by the canton. For Swiss students it gets a subsidy from the student’s home canton and from the federal government but for foreigners, only part of the home canton’s subsidy is replaced by the federal government. The canton of St Gallen, or its taxpayers, have to stump up the rest.

“On the other hand, a quota is a big chance for us because it gives us the framework to select students. All foreign students have to pass a very rigorous entry exam and we are also able to do some selection to assure student diversity. At the moment we are targeting students from non-German speaking countries,” Bieger said.

According to calculations by the NZZ am Sonntag, foreign students cost university cantons millions of francs each year.

It has been suggested the government should cover the outstanding costs. Local politicians in Basel and Zurich have recently raised another idea – higher fees. Most Swiss universities charge foreigners the same fee as the Swiss or slightly more.

For Bieger, Switzerland should have an export vision for traditional services, like education. “As part of this export vision, it is absolutely legitimate to discuss the option that foreign students pay their remaining costs,” he said. Wüest says it is a political question.

Different view

At Geneva University, where foreigners number 40 per cent, there is a slightly different view. Deputy Rector Yves Flückiger agreed that overseas students boost quality, adding they also benefited Switzerland as a whole as human capital. But he is not so in favour of quotas and higher fees.

“The right answer is mainly to increase the number of these students in the Swiss economy at the end of their studies. Right now they have to leave. We should give them at least six-12 months to find a job instead of going back to their countries or another country. In fact, to use the Master degree they got in Switzerland,” he told

For its part, the Swiss Union of Students said that it was paradoxical to sign up to the Bologna reform with its emphasis on mobility and then want to limit foreign students.

It is also against fees and quotas, said the union’s Rahel Siegrist. “In our view, education is a public good and in Switzerland, equality of chances should be given to everyone who wants or is able to study,” she said.

Isobel Leybold-Johnson,

There was a big increase 1997-2008 (+8% per year) in foreign students beginning their bachelor or pre-Bologna degree studies in Switzerland. This boost is expected to continue in the next 2-3 years. Also many might stay on for masters, implying an increase in total number of foreign students in the next 2 years.

For the master degrees, the Federal Statistics Office does not know whether there is a real trend or the increase is due to structural changes linked to the Bologna process. There has been 18-20% foreigners starting masters in the past five years. This actually means a very large increase as in 2004 it was 20% of 3,500 people and in 2008 it was around 20% of 10,000 people.

It could be that the large increase of foreign students followed the increase in masters offered by Swiss universities under the Bologna process. In that case, a huge rise would not be expected in the next years.

For doctorates there has been a 30-year trend of high numbers of foreign students. In 2008 49% of people starting their PhDs were from abroad.

An overall future rise is difficult to predict as it could depend on political and administrative decisions.

(Source: Jacques Babel, Federal Statistics Office)

The Bologna Declaration of 1999 aims to create a European Higher Education Area by 2010.

Students and teachers will then be able to move between countries in the area, and degrees obtained in one country will be recognised in all the others.

Switzerland is one of 46 countries in Europe that have signed up to the accord.

The new university course is divided into two stages: three years for a bachelors degree and two more to obtain a masters degree.

The first bachelor courses started in Switzerland in 2001. The first degrees were awarded in 2004 (1,057, mainly in law and economy).

In 2009 some 85 per cent of new students were studying under the new system.

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR