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How easy is it for foreign students to study in Swiss universities?

Switzerland still popular with overseas students despite Covid

Students in September 2020, when Swiss universities were still open Keystone / Gian Ehrenzeller

International students are still coming to Switzerland – a popular destination for overseas students - despite the coronavirus pandemic. But they face more challenges settling in.

When Italian Masters student Giuseppe Gruttad’Auria arrived in the western Swiss town of Fribourg in August last year, Covid-19 restrictions had been eased and universities were set to re-open for the autumn semester, albeit under strict hygiene and mask-wearing measures. He was able to attend a pre-semester French course, make some friends and get to know the region. But by November this had all changed.

Swiss universities went back to distance learning – for the second time that year – as much of Europe, including Switzerland, experienced a second, strong coronavirus wave.


This did not deter Gruttad’Auria, who is doing a double degree Masters in Public Economics and Public Finance at the Swiss University of Fribourg and the Italian University of Eastern Piemonte.

“In Italy I work as a university tutor, teaching mathematics and statistics, but the pandemic allows me to do my job online for the whole academic year. This motivated me to consider extending my stay in Switzerland [from the minimum one semester] to one year, to finish the Master courses here, including the research project as well,” Gruttad’Auria told SWI by email.

The situation back in Italy, where restrictions were tighter, also played a role. “Here in Switzerland I felt freer despite the situation, while maintaining the utmost attention and observance,” he said.  The student says he doesn’t mind online learning. But the social side of the exchange is different; it is harder to immediately forge “bonds of friendship and get in touch with the local culture”.

Not alone

Gruttad’Auria is not an isolated case. A snap survey of Swiss universities* suggests fears that fewer foreign students would enrol last autumn have not generally been realised.

It helps of course that overseas students are still allowed into Switzerland (see box).

Foreign students from EU/EFTA countries are allowed into Switzerland, subject to the normal immigration rules and quarantine rules if necessary. 

Foreign students from third countries can be admitted for education and training courses that last for more than 90 days, provided they meet the normal requirementsExternal link. This includes all third countries, including the UK and South Africa.

Students from third countries must apply to their local Swiss representation abroad in order to enter Switzerland. The application will then be passed on to the cantonal immigration office at the place where the school or university is located. This office will examine and process the application for a residence permit in order to study.

Source: State Secretariat for Migration SEMExternal link spokesperson

Switzerland’s academic landscape is highly internationalised, which is key to its success. Foreigners make up 30% of studentsExternal link, according to the latest figures; 56% of doctoral students come from abroad, the second highest level in the OECD.

But unlike the United States or the United Kingdom – also popular destinations with overseas students – foreign students are not a financial factor. Swiss tuition fees remain low, even for those enrolling from abroad (around CHF1,500 ($1,546) per year at the prestigious Swiss federal technology institute ETH Zurich).

At the University of Geneva and the Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI), in Italian-speaking Ticino, foreign enrolments have actually risen due to more students from neighbouring France and Italy. Here the continuity of teaching, good rankings and favourable Italian media reports about Swiss pandemic management have played a role, the USI told SWI The University of Fribourg, too, has recorded an increase in foreign students for 2020 (up by around 47% on the previous year). Here Germans and French made up the largest shares, with Italians coming third. There were 164 students from 57 other countries as well.

At other Swiss universities, like the University of Basel, there’s been a small drop in overseas students at Bachelors. “For overseas undergraduate and graduate students, existing travel and quarantine restrictions have caused some to forego study abroad,” said university spokesman Matthias Geering.

However, Basel has recorded an increase at Masters level, an increasingly popular degree with international students.

Exchanges down

All the universities surveyed reported fewer incoming foreign exchange students on shorter programmes like Erasmus. For example, there are currently 233 students from partner universities at the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, EPFL – normally it’s 650.  

At the University of Zurich most of the exchange students are coming from within Europe, initial figures show – and vice versa. Mobility outside Europe has been more strongly affected by entry and travel restrictions, the university said.

In many universities, overall domestic enrolment is however up, as Swiss-based students forgo their gap years.


Elsewhere, the picture is also mixed: the US saw a 43% dropExternal link in international enrolment for autumn term 2020 on the previous year. (The Trump administration’s more restrictiveExternal link policy towards international students has also played a role).

AustraliaExternal link is still capping the number of international student arrivals as part of its pandemic measures. But the United KingdomExternal link saw a 9% rise in international students from outside the UK and European Union starting this autumn. Neighbouring GermanyExternal link has reported similar trends to Switzerland.

The Erasmus Student Network Switzerland, which helps both long and short-term international students settle into Swiss higher ed institutions, has seen a large impact on mobility (it reports an up to 50% drop in overseas students on average across its local sections) – and its work.

Help on hand

In addition to the usual challenges of language barriers, high living costs and administrative red tape, overseas students now face travel bans, Covid test requirements and quarantine upon arrival, explained ESN Switzerland president Dana Mozaffari.

“Our local student volunteers have set up ‘quarantine support programmes’ whose goal is to provide help to newly arrived students with groceries, administrative tasks as well a moral support,” he told SWI

“However we have also heard of heavier administrative procedures for international students at some host universities, which we believe should be avoided in this challenging context.”

International students are defined as those with a secondary diploma obtained outside Switzerland and currently enrolled in a Swiss higher ed institution.

Most international students to Switzerland come from neighbouring countries like Germany, France, Italy and Austria. The largest numbers of non-EU country students are from China, India, the US, Russia, and Turkey, statistics show.

Source. Swiss Federal Statistical OfficeExternal link/NCCR on the moveExternal link

So why are students still interested in going abroad during the pandemic? “One thing that does not change is these international students’ motivation to get outside of their comfort zone and come to study in Switzerland,” Mozaffari said.

Courses may be online, but the overseas student experience is also about discovering the country and its culture. They also contribute to the country’s academic internationalisation, a “top strategic priority within the Swiss Higher Education sector”, added Mozaffari.

What of the future? Globally there is much discussion of long-term changes to student mobility, such as Chinese students – who make up a large group of Swiss international students, (see box) – opting for closer to homeExternal link. Or China itself, India and Italy becoming new popularExternal link destinations. The long-term effects on Switzerland remain to be seen.

* Information obtained from 8/12 Swiss universities and Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in January-February 2021

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