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Universities extend global reach

Students at work at the new ETH facilities in Singapore Naomi Hanakata/ETH

As international collaboration on high-end research projects intensifies, Swiss institutions are turning to offshore campuses to get ahead, albeit for different reasons.

Encouraged by financial incentives offered by foreign governments and the presence of prestigious research institutions from countries such as the United States, China and Japan, Swiss institutions are exporting their own expertise to expand the scope of their research.

Earlier this month, Interior Minister Alain Berset inaugurated the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability, a research project of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ), which so far counts 119 researchers on site in Singapore.

The ETH presence in Singapore was established more than a year ago with a staff of just five. Its conception came around the same time the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) established a research presence in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2009.

Franco Vigliotti, Dean of the EPFL Middle East based in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, told that the UAE was chosen as a strategic location at the intersection between the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa.

He said that 13-15 per cent of the EPFL’s student body came from the Middle East, North Africa and India.

“The EPFL is a top school at the European level now and this trend of those countries and beyond looking to the EPFL will continue,” he said. “So there will be a large number of students that will be interested in coming and we can’t simply stay like this, we need to provide a way that is closer to the countries where something can be envisioned for them.”

He said the UAE had put a large effort into attracting international research names to set up in the country, to the point where 25 per cent of the world’s offshore campuses are based there.

“There has been extremely rapid growth in the effort to transform the UAE into a hub for higher education in the region,” he said.


Increasing internationalisation has been a feature of scientific research for the last two decades and has accelerated as travel and communication methods have evolved and improved.

Mauro Moruzzi, head of International Affairs at the State Secretariat for Education and Research (SER) said that worldwide, 35 per cent of published research articles involve international collaboration, up from 25 per cent 15 years ago.

“In Switzerland, the research staff is extremely international, at the ETHZ – like in all Swiss universities – at the moment about half the faculty are non-Swiss, and I think about two-thirds of the PhD and post-doctoral students,” Moruzzi pointed out.

Gerhard Schmitt, director of Singapore ETH Centre, said the decision to set up in Singapore stemmed from the institute’s already significant research collaborations with Asian partners like Singapore, Japan, India, China and Australia.

“We already had quite a strong cooperation with Singapore in terms of writing research papers and student exchange,” he said. “So we knew that they had a very good university here, and that these people were really our peers. That was important to us to have peers, to make it attractive to our professors.”


It is those peers from other universities which also act as a key draw card when institutions are looking to expand abroad.

“It is of course a lot easier to work with people if you are in the same building,” said Schmitt, noting that prestigious names such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California Berkeley, with whom the ETHZ already had strong ties, were also established at Singapore’s Campus for Research and Technological Enterprise (Create).

“It happens that urbanisation is of great interest to us, and MIT are interested in particular aspects such as mobility. And areas of building efficiency, which is very important to our Future Cities project, is of great interest to UC Berkeley. So here we have one big urban group that is just by common interest working together,” he said.

The decision to establish a research centre offshore is more than a simple matter of wanting to work more closely with foreign friends. It is also presents a means of expanding research efforts outside of what can be achieved in Switzerland.

“We did not want to do any research outside of Switzerland that you can do at the ETHZ, there’s no reason. That’s why we say teaching has to happen in Switzerland, what we can do best in Switzerland, we should do that,” said Schmitt, referring to the fact that ETH Singapore does not offer degree courses.

“But there are some areas where either because of climatic conditions or geographical, political or geopolitical positions we have a lot knowledge, a lot of academic power, but we cannot really apply it in the direct vicinity of Europe or Switzerland,” he said. 

Breaking new ground

Vigliotti agreed and described being in the UAE as a “new market of research” which had enabled the EPFL to explore new or complementary areas which wouldn’t otherwise be possible in Switzerland.

“For example, we are able to test solar cells that were designed in Switzerland for very harsh and extreme conditions. So we are able to see if it would be possible to export such solar panels to regions like this; would they survive, how do they behave?” he said.

Vigliotti said that if Switzerland wanted to hold on to its leading edge in research and innovation which had been key to the country’s prosperity, “we need to open up to the world.

“Switzerland is a small country and simply looking at the numbers, the pool for recruiting students and professors is a bit small.”

For Schmitt, the ETH presence in Singapore’s Create represents a break from old-school university structures.

“We are employing researchers and making it possible to interact in different ways, focusing on themes, not on disciplines, focusing on research results and dissemination and interaction with the strongest people in the world,” he enthused.

“It really is a new model and we are very curious to see where it will lead.”

The Future Cities Laboratory (FCL) is a transdisciplinary research centre focused on urban sustainability in a global frame.

It is the first research programme of the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability (SEC). It is home to a community of over 100 PhD, postdoctoral and professorial researchers working on diverse themes related to future cities and environmental sustainability.

Specifically the FCL is focused on how cities might be designed, produced, managed, maintained, and inhabited in a way that supports the aims of global sustainability?

The FCL addresses both the wider threat and potential of the contemporary city, and the specific implications of this question through a transdisciplinary frame.

EPFL Middle East is based in Ras al-Khaimah, UAE, and converges graduate and postgraduate research in the fields of energy and sustainability.

It offers masters and PhD graduate research and programmes in the fields of urban transport, wind, energy and water, as well as executive education courses in similar areas.

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