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Swiss universities rush to join alliances as EU talks stall

Department of Social Sciences of the University of Bern
Department of Social Sciences, University of Bern. Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

Locked out of two key European research funding and education programmes, Swiss universities are forging another path via alliances with European universities. But the move cannot replace full participation in Horizon Europe or Erasmus+.

Bern is one of the latest Swiss universities to have joined an alliance. On December 1 it signed up to ENLIGHTExternal link, a group of nine comprehensive, research-intensive universities, stretching from Ghent to Bratislava.

“ENLIGHT membership is an opportunity for the University of Bern to remain an active part in a rapidly changing European higher education landscape. Our membership will add a new dynamic to our future development as a university,” Virginia Richter, vice rector for development at the University of Bern, told SWI via email.

The move comes at a time when Swiss universities are fighting to retain their position in Europe’s research and education landscape.

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, but Bern and Brussels have traditionally cooperated on research, education and innovation. After Switzerland broke off talks on long-term relations with the EU in 2021, Brussels downgraded Switzerland’s participation in Horizon Europe – the world’s largest research funding programme worth €95.5 billion (CHF95 billion) – to non-associated third country. This restricts Swiss access to certain grants and funding. It has been a big blow to the Swiss research and education community, even if the Swiss authorities have stepped in with some interim funding.

This comes on top of an exclusion in 2014 from full participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ education and mobility scheme, which includes student exchanges, as a result of an earlier disagreement with the 27-member bloc.

Flagship scheme

In 2022 the EU allowed Swiss universities to join the EU’s other big flagship scheme, European Universities initiativeExternal link (which is actually part of Erasmus+), as associated partners.

Founded in 2018, this highly popular initiative encourages groups of European universities across Europe to build alliances among themselves to strengthen cooperation at an institutional level.

One example of alliances in practice is students getting their degree by combining studies at several universities in the network. The scheme also supports innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as research and education collaboration. The idea is to contribute to the international competitiveness of European higher education – in relation to United States and China – in the long term.

“The pilot phase of the Erasmus+ universities initiative was reserved for full members of Erasmus+, which is why Switzerland could not join then. In 2022 the initiative was opened to interested associate membersExternal link, which like Switzerland are members of the European higher education area,” said Amanda Crameri, head of higher education at MovetiaExternal link, the Swiss national agency for exchange and mobility.

Erasmus+ is also where the alliances put in their bids for project funding. But as an associated member, Switzerland is not eligible for these funds. Instead, Swiss universities have to apply to MovetiaExternal link for Swiss grants to cover their part. They are also not allowed to coordinate and lead any Erasmus+ projects.

Run on alliances

But these restrictions have not put off the Swiss: six of the 12 traditional Swiss universities have already signed up to an alliance. In addition, two of the country’s Universities of Applied Sciences – Switzerland’s more industry-oriented universities, mostly attended by qualified apprentices – have also joined a network. A further three universities are also likely to participate in Erasmus+ bids in 2023, according to Movetia. This shows that European networks and collaboration remains very important for Swiss universities, it says.

University of Zurich (the first to sign up) – Una Europa*

University of Lausanne – CIVIS*

University of Geneva – 4EU+*

University of Basel – EPICUR (as a member of EUCOR)*   

*Alliances that received EU funding in 2022External link, with Swiss participation through Movetia-granted funding.

The following three announced alliances aim to secure funding from Erasmus+ in 2023:

ETH Zurich – Enhance

University of Bern – ENLIGHT

University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland  HES-SO– UNITA

Zurich University of Applied Sciences ZHAWExternal link – EELISA (announced January 26)

There are currently 44 European University alliances, covering 340 universities in 31 countries. The EU’s aim is for this to rise to 60 alliances with 500 universities by mid-2024.

For the University of Bern and the top-ranked Swiss federal technology institute ETH Zurich, – which joined the Enhance AllianceExternal link of ten European technical universities in November 2022 – these alliances bring many opportunities, and not just in mobility.

“We are also testing new forms of cooperation in teaching, creating joint interactive teaching offers, as well as formats that further strengthen the transdisciplinary skills of our students,” ETH Zurich Rector Günther Dissertori told SWI in written comments.

The University of Bern also appreciates that six of the ENLIGHT members, including Bern, are members of the prestigious Brussels-based Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, which helps further increase its European visibility.

As for the University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland (known as HES-SO), joining an alliance was a clear aim. It became part of the UNITA – Universitas Montium group in June 2022. Rector Luciana Vaccaro said the vision behind the alliance programme was “building an ecosystem for the European citizen of the future”.

“This is very good [for us] because even if we are excluded from Horizon Europe and Erasmus+, we can find a way to stay in this association which is the EU flagship instrument at the moment, so I feel very privileged that we could access that,” she told SWI.

Overall, Switzerland will provide CHF6 million ($6.5 million) for 2022-2025External link for Swiss participation in the European Universities initiative. The money comes from the Swiss funding to replace Erasmus+ participation.

HES-SO rector Luciana Vaccaro, who in February takes up the presidency of swissuniversities, the umbrella group of Swiss universities, said alliance funding should be secured and possibly increased in terms of yearly amount. “It’s important that Swiss universities have access to this important funding scheme. But without stable funding, our effective participation is compromised,” she told SWI.

Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ still key

But the university leaders were clear that alliances could not replace full access to Horizon Europe or Erasmus+.

“Many researchers based in Switzerland are among the leading scientists in their fields, but excellent science flows across borders,” the University of Bern’s Richter said. “To remain in a leading position, Swiss researchers need to be able to collaborate across borders, lead international consortia and work packages, which has become much more difficult without Swiss association to Horizon Europe.”

The university has already had to cede leadership to Maastricht University of a collaboration to find AI-based solutions for better treating diabetes.

In Horizon 2020, the predecessor of Horizon Europe, the institution took part in 175 projects, worth about CHF120 million, supporting the work of almost 500 researchers.


For Dissertori, alliances nevertheless signal that Switzerland is “open to European collaboration”.

This signal is needed. Negotiations between Bern and Brussels on Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ (rejoining remains the government’s stated aimExternal link) and wider issues are currently stalled. The Swiss research and education community is not holding out too much hope for change in 2023.

Edited by Virginie Mangin/ts

*This article was amended on January 27 to add in the ZHAW alliance announcement

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR